Postcard Stories

Welcome to our monthly blog featuring stories of an era gone by, but not forgotten. In this section, we feature monthly stories highlighting the human connection with postcards; the memories, the nostalgia, the historical significance, and much more. Simply scroll down to read the latest story or click on an earlier dated post to read, reminisce, and enjoy. If you have any questions or comments, please email us directly.

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Blog Posts

April 2019

 April 2019

The US Life Saving Service of East Tawas, Michigan 

(Historical note:  The United States Life-Saving Service (USLSS) was a civilian agency of the federal government created in 1848 to save the lives of shipwrecked mariners and passengers along the nation's coasts.  In 1915 it was merged with the Revenue Cutter Service to form the United States Coast Guard.)

This is the story of a maritime family, a shipwreck, and a postcard that captures a moment in time.  The family story begins around the time of the American Revolution.  My first McKay ancestor to come to America was from Scotland, and he was drafted into the English army to fight for the King in the Revolutionary War.  When the war ended, he was given the choice of transportation back to Scotland or transportation to Nova Scotia, Canada where he could settle.  He chose to go to Nova Scotia and settled at the town of Shelburne on Nova Scotia's southeastern coast.  Shelburne was a small coastal town where the economy was heavily based on nautical trades including fishing and boat building.   Little is known of the family activities in Shelburne, but they were likely related to the local industries.

Around 1850 one of the McKay family decided to move to the United States with his family.  They eventually settled in Michigan in an area on the shores of Saginaw Bay, an arm of Lake Huron.  The McKay family was among the earliest European settlers in the region.  There were no railroads or roads in the area, and the only practical transportation over distance was by water.  The McKay family had a small schooner that was used to haul supplies from the nearest town of any size, Bay City, Michigan.  At harvest time, the schooner was used to haul the agricultural harvest to Bay City for sale.  

The McKay family lived in a small town named Sebewaing which was located on a small river of the same name.  The river itself was fairly shallow as was Saginaw Bay.  In order to sail in this general area, the boats had to have relatively shallow draft and be broad in order to carry a reasonable amount of cargo.  Although there is little to document the activity, it is likely that the McKay family also engaged in commercial fishing at least part time.  

As the years went by in the last half of the 1800's, the region slowly advanced as did the McKay family.   The maritime trades continued with two brothers, Ebenezer and William.  Ebenezer McKay enlisted in the Union Navy during the Civil War and served on three different ships.  Following his naval service, Ebenezer returned to Sebewaing and resumed his civilian maritime occupation.  The small schooner which had initially served the family and community was sold, and a larger schooner named Mary Hattie was purchased.  The Mary Hattie is described as a two-masted scow schooner of approximately 100 feet in length and measuring 174 tons.  "Scow schooner" describes a sailing vessel that has a bluff bow, shallow draft, and broad beam in order to carry a useful amount of cargo.  Such vessels were common in that era, and they were not held out as examples of beauty.  They were built to work under prevailing conditions.  They could sail anywhere on the Great Lakes and enter the smallest harbors.

Ebenezer McKay's brother William was my great grandfather.  The oral history of the family suggests that he was a neer-do-well with a reputation for drinking and fighting.  The oral history is based on accounts of people he subsequently deserted, so he wasn't around to defend himself or his reputation.  In any case, he continued the family tradition of sailing and itinerant jobs that took him away from home and family.  Regardless of what his character was, William apparently married above his own status.  His wife came from a family of prominent lawyers and judges.  They had a son Carlos and a daughter Nellie.  At a young age, Carlos would sometimes go on sea trips with his father.  Carlos apparently loved these trips and spending time with his father, but his Mother was concerned about his safety and the influence of his father.

On one of his trips, William was up near Wisconsin's Apostle Islands on Lake Superior.  He wrote a letter to his wife telling her that he wasn't coming home again.  He further told her to see a lawyer and get a divorce, and she did.  At the time, my grandfather Carlos would have been about 7 years old and was greatly hurt by his father's abandonment.  His sister Nellie was only about three, and she did not suffer in the same way because she had not bonded so closely to her father.  Through the rest of his life, Carlos would never speak of his father or even mention his name.  Nellie did not feel quite the same, and she eventually went to visit him when she was a young adult.  She had no illusions about what had happened, but her curiosity outweighed any resentment.

William eventually ended up in Ontonagon, a coastal town in the western end of Michigan's upper peninsula.  He married an Indian woman who was a widow with a teenage son.  William and his second wife had a daughter of their own.  They moved out into the woods roughly 10 miles from town and homesteaded the property.  It was a primitive life.  They had to live on the land and make improvements for so many years in order to obtain title to the land.  When they finally obtained title, they sold the land to a lumber company and moved back into town.  That was a common practice in that era.  William and his second family lived in the town of Ontonagon until his death in 1920.  

Since William had abandoned his first family, he was not well regarded by those he left behind.  By comparison, his brother Ebenezer was still in the area and helped look after his brother's family.  The ex-wife eventually remarried, but my grandfather Carlos never was very fond of his stepfather.  Carlos was fond of his uncle Ebenezer who became known as "Uncle Eb" to most of the family.  Ebenezer had maintained the family's maritime tradition and was a full time sailor. 

In May of 1889 Ebenezer McKay was owner and master of the Mary Hattie.  He was in Cedarville, a small town and port in the eastern end of Michigan's upper peninsula.  There was a crew of 7 aboard including his young adult son.  They were in Cedarville to load a cargo of telegraph poles that was to be delivered to the town of Port Huron.  Cedarville is located at the northern end of Lake Huron, and Port Huron is located at the southern end of the lake.  The delivery trip thus amounted to sailing the length of Lake Huron from north to south.

Shortly after completing loading and departing Cedarville, a spring storm rose up.  The predominant wind direction was from the east, and the winds tended to force the Mary Hattie against the lee shore which was the eastern shore of Michigan's lower peninsula.  The Mary Hattie slowly worked its way south as it fought to stay off the nearby shore.  They eventually passed Tawas and the United States Life-Saving Service station there.  

In an era long before routine radio communication, the USLSS was almost entirely dependent on visual observation to spot ships in distress.  Stations typically had some means of providing an elevated structure so the lookout could extend his range of vision.  Depending on local geography, stations often used patrols on foot or horseback to extend their lookout along the shoreline.  Maintaining a vigilant lookout was one of the most important duties for a station's crew.

As the Mary Hattie fought its way south, it passed the USLSS station at Tawas during the day.  It would have been in visual range of the lookout on the duty, weather and visibility conditions permitting.  Since a storm was blowing, the lookout would have been particularly vigilant.  The storm included rain, and it is possible that the Mary Hattie passed unseen because of it.

The Mary Hattie was now approaching the shallower waters of Saginaw Bay as they fought to stay offshore.  Some of the sails had blown out making things even more difficult.  Near a place called White Stone Point, their luck ran out.  Even though they were a large distance offshore, they ran aground in the shallow waters there.  There were large waves washing across the deck, and one of the crew was swept overboard.  The cargo of telegraph poles also was washed overboard.  The crewman survived by using one of the telegraph poles for buoyancy to assist in his journey to shore.  This was in the spring, so the water was still quite cold; and he had taken a physical beating.  He was able to reach the beach where he was given aid and comfort by people on the shore and survived with no permanent injuries.

The Mary Hattie had run aground late in the day.  It was now getting dark, and crashing waves were washing across the deck.  The remaining crew of 6 had to climb into the rigging to try to survive the night.  They were exhausted, cold, wet, and subject to the strong winds of the storm.

People on the shore were aware of what had happened but were powerless to assist the remaining crew.  They notified the  USLSS station at Tawas.  The head keeper of the station was also powerless to assist right away.  Night was coming on, and it was not practical to row the considerable distance to White Stone Point.  A large lake tug named "Music" had sought refuge from the storm in Tawas Bay, and the keeper made arrangements for the Music to tow the lifesaving boat to White Stone Point at daybreak.  When dawn arrived, the Music towed the lifeboat and crew to the vicinity of White Stone Point.  The Music could not go into the Mary Hattie itself because it would also have run aground.  It released the tow line on the lifeboat, and the crew went to work at the oars.  They were able to row into the lee of the wreck and take off all of the remaining schooner crew.  The lifeboat was rowed back to the Music which took them under tow once again.  They arrived back at Tawas with no further injury or incident.

The crew of the Mary Hattie was suffering from exposure, hypothermia, and extreme fatigue.  The crew of the lifeboat was also suffering the effects of their own strenuous efforts in miserable conditions.  In the official log, the head keeper commented on the condition of the master of the schooner (Ebenezer McKay).  He wrote that the master had suffered greatly and the keeper didn't think that he could have lasted much longer.  He was also complementary about the work of his own boat crew, who he referred to as "working like beavers".

The loss of the Mary Hattie marked the end of that chapter of McKay seafaring.  The Mary Hattie and its cargo were a total loss, and neither the boat nor the cargo was insured.  Ebenezer never had another schooner, and his age and financial loss were factors.  At that point in his life, he was simply not up to building a business once more.  His son who was also aboard was not destined for a nautical career.  He had already shown an interest in a career in art, and he had received extensive training.  He ended up becoming a successful portrait painter.  All of the rest of the crew survived; but nothing more is known of their fates.

I arranged for a very skilled painter to create an original oil painting of the rescue scene.  He produced a 24" by 36" oil painting showing the lifesaving boat approaching the Mary Hattie.  No pictures of the Mary Hattie survive, so its image is one typical for the era.  The tug Music is in the distance waiting for the lifeboat to return.  The weather is stormy, and the sea is rough.  The schooner crew is still waiting in the rigging.  Although it is not a cheerful painting, it still gives me comfort because I know that my family members survived a perilous situation.

Although Ebenezer's nautical career ended with the wreck, the family seafaring tradition continued in other ways.   McKay descendants have worked in commercial fishing and served in the nation's seagoing services, both Navy and Coast Guard.  

I encountered the postcard of the lookout at the Tawas USLSS station on eBay.  It instantly struck a chord as I knew the critical role played by that station's crew in the rescue of some of my ancestors.  They had almost certainly saved their lives.  The postcard illustrated the vital role of the lookout.  I also realized that I might be looking at one of the men who participated in the actual rescue.  It is a rare postcard, but I was willing to pay for a postcard with such a personal connection.

The physical building which served as the USLSS Station Tawas has been saved and restored.  You can read the story of its restoration at

The story is long and detailed and probably beyond the interest of most readers.  However, if you scroll down to near the end of the story, you will see a historic photo showing the station in its early years.  The photo shows the walkway on the roof used by the lookout and shown in the postcard.  The crew is posed in front of the station with a cart used for moving rescue gear along the beach.

This narrative is based on formal genealogical research, newspaper accounts,  family oral history, and access to the actual USLSS log covering the rescue of the crew of the Mary Hattie.