The James B. Colgate was a whaleback steamer that sank off the shores of Long Point in Lake Erie on Friday, October 20, 1916. This day was dubbed “Black Friday” because of its fierce winds and towering waves wreaking havoc on numerous vessels traveling on Lake Erie’s waters. The Colgate, loaded with coal, left on its final voyage from Buffalo, heading for Fort William, today known as Thunder Bay. The vessel weighed 1,713 tons and measured 302 feet in length. Captain Walter Grashaw was the only surviving member of the 26-man crew. The school P.S. 12Q located in Woodside, Queens, is named after James B. Colgate.
The American Steel Barge Company built the Colgate in West Superior, Wisconsin in 1892. The Pittsburgh Steamship Company owned the Colgate, using the vessel to ship goods throughout the Great Lakes region. Her maiden voyage occurred on September 21, 1892, surviving 24 years and overcoming numerous storms. The ship's longevity and durability accentuates the strength of the storm that eventually led to her ruin. This steel whaleback was the first of its kind to sink in the Great Lakes.
Three other ships met their demise on this treacherous day. The D.L. Filer, the Marshall F. Butters, and the Merida all succumbed to the relentless storm, one of the worst Lake Erie had ever endured. After hours of hurricane-like winds pounding on the ship, the Colgate was unable to stay afloat, eventually plummeting bow first to the bottom of the lake. She sank because of the amount of water pouring into the cargo hold, too much for the pumps to empty. The crew knew the ship was in peril but had no means of communication to send a distress signal.
Captain Grashaw was the only survivor of this shipwreck. He had been aboard the Colgate for 10 years as First Shipmate; this was is his first voyage as captain. The ship was only fitted with one lifeboat, forcing the crew to rely heavily on life preservers to save their lives. The ferocity of the storm negated the life-saving aspect of the preserver, resulting in the drowning of the entire crew, except the captain. Captain Grashaw was one of only three men to find the lone life raft. The three men struggled to stay aboard the tiny raft as it was tossed by the waves through the night. By morning, Captain Grashaw was the only man to survive. After numerous hours, the captain finally spotted a passenger boat. His hope of rescue was quickly deflated, as the boat did not see or hear him crying for help. It was not until dawn on Sunday morning that a half-dead captain found refuge from a car ferry, the Marquette and Bessemer No.2 II. Captain Grashaw was one of the few survivors to tell the story of “Black Friday”. Throughout the remainder of his life, he suffered with the guilt of losing his entire crew.
In 1991, off the shore of Erieau, Ontario, the wreck of the James B. Colgate was finally located.