Remembering Black Sunday in Duluth

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As waves threatened to overtop the pier walls and wind whipped the words from people’s mouths, an intimate ceremony was held earlier this week in Duluth’s Canal Park. The gathering marked 50 years since three brothers and a Coast Guardsman who was trying to find them were swept off the pier during a late April blow. (For more details, please read my earlier post.)

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Ron Prei (left) and Tom Mackay.

Tom Mackay, a friend of the Coast Guardsman, organized the Black Sunday event. It was simple – no microphones, no chairs – just a bunch of people who wanted to remember. We stood on the North Pier near the shore and the Marine Museum, where the plaque for Guardsman Culbertson rests. It’s not far from the gates put up after the drownings to discourage people from walking the piers during bad weather.

Mackay talked about why he feels it’s important to remember the events of that night long ago. He talked about his friend who died. He talked about the power of the lake. He painted a picture of young lives cut short.

Mackay laid four flowers next to the plaque as he does every year on April 30 – one for each death, and then invited Ron Prei, another Coast Guardsman who was part of the rescue attempt, to talk. The soft-spoken Prei’s words were lost to the wind, but in a TV news interview, he described the harrowing conditions of that night and how he’ll never forget.

DSC04055The Halvorson brothers were my cousins – first cousins once removed, or something like that. I was too young when the tragedy happened to remember them, but I remember the effect it had on my family, and the Halvorson family. Later, when we would visit the Halvorson home for dinner, there was the sense of the missing brothers – a blackness that hung in the background and was not overtly acknowledged – at least not when I was around. A certain liveliness was missing. Those feelings were quickly overshadowed by the exuberance of the family’s four other children and the warmth of conversation.

It was good to be part of this public recognition for the boys, the man, and the force that is the lake.

Afterwards, the crowd dispersed, hunched against the cold wind. And we remembered.

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