Earnest Pearce’s amazing visitor

by Larry Chabot

This is a three-star story spotlighting a legendary “miracle” woman, a local banker who appeared before 25 million people, and the worst maritime disaster in Great Lakes history.

August 30, 1915: there was great commotion at Marquette’s Lower Harbor as 400 Knights Templar, on their annual Great Lakes tour, were disembarking from the steamer South American for a short visit in the city. Although local members had but one day’s warning, they managed to round up enough people to mount a decent welcome for the visiting Knights (members of a religious organization with several mutations over its thousand-year history).

In the waiting crowd was Templar Ernest Pearce, manager of the Lake Shore Engine Works, who was searching among the passengers for a special visitor. Ah, there she was, disembarking on the arm of an attendant. Few people knew she was here. But Pearce knew. After the introductions, he led her to a waiting automobile for a leisurely drive around the city’s beautiful Presque Isle Park. It was a bit chilly at 8:30 in the morning; temperatures hovered in the low 50s, and periodic drizzles pushed the humidity into the 70s. No use speaking to her: she couldn’t hear him. No sense in pointing out sights: she couldn’t see them. Her attendant would pass on Pearce’s remarks to her through finger touches; she got the sense of his remarks through her fingertips. Then, in perfectly enunciated speech, she would answer. And, yes, she told him, Presque Isle was “marvelous.”

She was Helen Keller, one of the most remarkable people who ever lived, and one of the most influential women in American history. After completing a wearying lecture tour of the western states, Miss Keller was taking time off to tour the Great Lakes on a ship with 400 Knights Templar. At age 35, she had already written three books, numerous articles and lectured throughout the country. Blind and deaf since she was 19 months old, she had overcome her daunting handicaps through the force of her powerful will and the guidance of a remarkable teacher, Annie Sullivan. Their collaboration was dramatically portrayed in the 1962 Oscar-winning film The Miracle Worker.

The steamer South American had left Chicago two days earlier, stopping at Mackinac Island and Sault Ste. Marie before docking in Marquette. From there, they headed for Houghton and Duluth, returning to Chicago through Georgian Bay. According to maritime historian Fred Stonehouse, the Marquette landing was at the old merchandise dock in the lower harbor, now home to Thill’s Fish House.

The Knights loved to travel on big cruise ships, and this was their third consecutive Great Lakes tour. Despite warnings of foul weather on the upper lakes, the boat maneuvered through the Soo Locks and docked in Marquette right on time.

The Knights ship of choice was the year-old South American, built to sail the route between Chicago and Duluth. It’s later history found it surviving a major fire in 1935, ownership by the Seafarer’s International Union as a training school and dormitory, and an eventual scrapping in 1992 after several failed attempts to turn it into a museum and restaurant ship. Although the Templars normally drew up to 700 people for their cruises (the maximum capacity of this ship), the 1915 assemblage was down considerably because a maritime disaster the previous month caused a rash of cancellations by jittery members. After a two-hour stay, the ship departed at 10:30 a.m. for Houghton, where it was due at 3:30 p.m.

What was it that spooked the Knights? Only five weeks before the Marquette trip, disaster overtook the Eastland, a poorly designed ship with such a high center of gravity that it nearly tipped over in 1903 when too many passengers were boarded. Although as long a ship as the South American, it listed a capacity of 2,572 – more than three times as many as the South American.

On July 24, 1915, the Eastland was one of four steamers chartered to take corporate employees on a short picnic cruise from Chicago to Michigan City, Indiana. Again, the ship was over-booked, packed with too many passengers standing on the upper decks. As the top-heavy vessel began tilting away from the dock, panicked passengers rushed to the other side, causing the Eastland to roll completely over in the other direction in 20 feet of water. The death total was enormous—844 passengers and crew—the largest loss of life on any Great Lakes vessel. To sort out the bodies, a temporary morgue was set up in a nearby armory (later used as the sound stage for The Oprah Winfrey Show).

Thanks to the Knights Templar love of cruising, the paths of Ernest Pearce and Helen Keller crossed pleasantly in Marquette. Pearce went on to become one of the most dynamic figures in midwest banking. As president and board chair of Union National Bank, he was regarded as the dean of U.P. bankers.

Pearce had another brush with history before a national audience of 25,000 people. On a 1961 broadcast of the popular TV show “I’ve Got A Secret,” he tried to stump a panel of experts who tried to expose his secret: that he had graduated from high school that same year at age 75. Panelist Kitty Carlisle, having read the story somewhere, revealed his secret. His appearance brought him hundreds of letters and phone calls. He had become a world traveler after his retirement, often leaving Marquette for months at a time. In 1964, age 79, he passed away at his home on Spruce Street in Marquette.

And what of Helen Keller? As the first blind-deaf person to earn a bachelor of arts degree in college, she embarked on a writing and lecturing career which brought her to 39 countries and into the company of 14 consecutive U.S. presidents, from Grover Cleveland to Lyndon Johnson. She counted Mark Twain, Charlie Chaplin and Alexander Graham Bell among her friends. She lived to be 88 years old. Among her many accolades was being named one of the ten most influential women in American history. She passed away in 1968, four years after Ernest Pearce’s demise.

A phone call to Phil Pearce, grandson of Ernest Pearce, at Phil’s 550 Store revealed the news that the family had never heard of the Helen Keller episode. But Phil did add two facts to his grandfather’s legacy: (1) panelist Kitty Carlisle guessed his secret because she’d read about it in a newspaper, and (2) Ernest Pearce also had the pleasure of driving famed aviator Amelia Earhart around Presque Isle in the 1930s.

He was evidently the go-to guy for VIPs. Way to go Ernie!

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