By Kate Habrel
The Mataafa set sail on Lake Superior with the barge James Nasmyth in tow during the hurricane-force blizzard of 1905.
The weather proved formidable.
To save the Mataafa, the captain cut the barge free. He nearly made it to Duluth, but the Mataafa broke in half in the shallow water outside the north pier.
Everyone in the back half of the ship died. Everyone in the front half and aboard the James Nasmyth survived.
And thanks to that wreck and to the storm, Captain Tom Reid’s salvage business also survived.
“Right before this 1913 storm, Reid’s company was in a lot of trouble financially,” said Michael Schumacher, an author specializing in Great Lakes shipping history. “He was connected to a lot of jobs as a result of that storm – and his company not only came back but thrived.”
“The Salvager,” first published in 1958, chronicles Reid’s life. The University of Minnesota Press recently republished it with a foreword by Schumacher.
Reid operated one of the Great Lakes’ largest salvaging companies during his lifetime, according to the book by Mary Francis Doner. He changed the face of the industry, making it much more well-respected.
Schumacher came across the book while researching the Great Lakes storm of 1913. Reid’s name came up several times in other books, and Schumacher wanted to learn more. He found Doner’s book and intended to use it for research.
Once he found what he needed to know, he just kept reading.
“The book told you things that you couldn’t have imagined, not only about the way things were done a long time ago, but about the business itself,” Schumacher said. “Along the way, you are introduced to one of the real interesting characters in Great Lakes history.”
“The Salvager” describes Reid, who operated across the Great Lakes, as a man obsessed with them. He took on hard jobs such as salvaging the Mataafa, made difficult because of poor weather and equipment failure, and another challenging task where a boat flipped upside down in shallow waters.
While his salvager father, Jim Reid, saw the Great Lakes as a workplace, the younger man saw them as a lifeline. He operated Port Huron, Michigan-based Reid Wrecking and Towing during the 1880-1950 era of Great Lakes shipping disasters. Before then, salvagers were seen almost as pirates, stripping parts off wrecks and leaving.
“‘Salvager’ almost sounds like ‘scavenger,’ doesn’t it?” Schumacher said. “And that wasn’t
what Tom was doing. Tom legitimized the business, and he did it in a way that stuck. People no longer looked at salvagers that way.”
Reid maintained good relationships not just with other salvaging companies, but with the owners themselves. When ship production took a dive in 1907 and harmed freight shipping, he opened his company’s shipyard for ship owners to make much-needed repairs.
He and his crew didn’t steal from the wrecks. They worked on contract from shipping companies, following their instructions.
Reid operated before scuba gear was invented. Air was pumped down to divers’ helmets from the ship above. It was a dangerous business, and Reid lost divers along the way. One man’s head became so swelled with blood the others had to cut his helmet free.
Reid was also known for his improvisation – if there was something he needed, he’d invent it from what was on hand. In one case, he and his crew moved clam shells and mud into a salvaged ship as a counterbalance to keep it from capsizing.
But “The Salvager” doesn’t just tell of Reid’s time as a salvager. It also talks about his relationships — to his wife, his children and the people around him.
Reid missed his wife while on salvaging runs and would often plan what gifts to buy for her with the money he made. At the same time, he had a temper – in one incident at his home, he picked up a noisy boarder and threw him against the wall. “The Salvager” paints a complete picture of Reid as an individual.
In fact, that might be the reason why it captured Schumacher’s attention.
“Anybody would love to have a book of this nature written about them,” he said. “I don’t think Tom Reid thought for one minute that what he was doing was romantic or was terribly special. I think he saw it as a challenge and a job, and I think he truly loved doing what he did.”