Fifty years ago on this day, I remember by mother and sister crying. I was seated at the dining room table and they were in the living room across the way sobbing their hearts out. I was so young, I didn’t understand what was happening. I only knew this wasn’t usual behavior for them. It scared me.
Eventually they came over and tried to explain. They said three of our cousins had drowned in Lake Superior – 17-year-old Eric, and 16-year-old twins Art and Nate. A Coast Guardsman who was trying to save them also drowned. A wind storm had whipped up the waves on the lake and the boys had driven down to the pier in the evening after a church youth group gathering to watch the power of the lake.
Whose idea was it to try and make it to the lighthouse at the end of the pier? As my family tells it, a common game among teenagers at the time was to run on the pier wall, racing the waves from light post to light post until making it to the end. Then you had to make it back. It was a local rite of passage.
According to witnesses, two of the brothers made it to the lighthouse. The third brother, close behind, lost his footing and was swept off the pier. The other two turned back to save him, but soon they were lost from sight in the frigid water.
I guess it doesn’t matter whose idea it was to race the waves. The brothers can’t tell us, and their bodies were never found.
In response to a call for volunteers to search for the boys that night, three Coast Guardsmen tethered themselves together with rope and made their way to the end of the pier. Finding nothing but wind and furious waves, they were making their way back when one of them, Edgar Culbertson, was washed over the side by a wave. The other two could not save him. I assume he was still attached to the rope and by the time they got to shore, Culbertson was drowned.
In commemoration of my cousins and the men who tried to rescue them, a ceremony was held today at the pier. Since I am the only member of my family left in town, I attended to represent. I’ll write more about that in my next post.