Three 19th-Century Shipwrecks Discovered in Lake Superior

A black and white image of a large schooner
A view of the schooner-barge Michigan, which sank in Lake Superior on October 2, 1902, alongside the M.M. Drake Courtesy of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society

A remotely operated vehicle (ROV) captured chilling footage in the depths of Lake Superior this summer.

As researchers used the robot to explore a newly discovered 19th-century shipwreck 600 feet below the surface off the coast of Grand Marais, Michigan, they happened upon the vessel’s main cabin, which had been eerily frozen in time. Photos captured at the scene show overturned stools, an old-fashioned stove and other waterlogged remnants of someone’s living quarters.

“You can very clearly see bunks inside the cabin. You can see a chair,” Bruce Lynn, executive director of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society (GLSHS), told 9&10 News’ Corey Adkins in August. “… It kind of looks like the crew just got up and raced out.”

Three 19th-Century Shipwrecks Discovered in Lake Superior
The main cabin of the Frank W. Wheeler remains eerily preserved under about 600 feet of water.  Courtesy of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society

Approximately 136 years ago, the ship’s crew may have done just that. The sunken cabin belongs to the schooner-barge Frank W. Wheeler, which sank on September 29, 1885, after being downed by a strong gale. Per a statement, Captain William Forbes evacuated his men in a lifeboat, and just 15 minutes later, the Wheeler sank. Onlookers said the vessel emitted loud explosions as it slipped under the waves.

The Wheeler was just one of three 19th-century shipwrecks found by GLSHS researchers in the month of July. The other two vessels are the Dot and the Michigan, reports Brandon Champion for MLive.com.

“This has been a banner year,” says Lynn in the statement. He adds that his team has identified many additional shipwrecks this year that have yet to be verified. All told, the director notes, “we have never located so many new wrecks in one season.”

Three 19th-Century Shipwrecks Discovered in Lake Superior
Wreckage inside the Wheeler‘s main cabin includes an overturned stool and the remains of an old-fashioned stove. Courtesy of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society

On August 25, 1883, the Dot was carrying a load of iron ore and being towed by the steamer M.M. Drake. Suddenly, the smaller vessel began to take on water, forced the people on board to evacuate from the Dot to the Drake. All crew members were rescued.

Coincidentally, the Michigan was also being towed by the M.M. Drake when it met its watery demise. The two vessels were caught in hazardous weather on October 2, 1901, near Vermilion Point, Michigan, when the Michigan began to sink. Captain J.W. Nicholson managed to maneuver the Drake alongside the Michigan so that crew members could leap from one vessel to the other.

Within minutes of the initial rescue, however, a massive wave demolished the Drake’s smokestack. Crews from both Drake and the Michigan were now in danger—but not for long. Two nearby steel steamers managed to rescue the combined crews before both the Drake and the Michigan succumbed to the storm. Just one crew member died in the unusual double sinking: Harry Brown, the Michigan’s cook.

Three 19th-Century Shipwrecks Discovered in Lake Superior
A view of the Dot‘s bow on the bottom of Lake Superior, where the vessel rests under about 350 feet of water Courtesy of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society

A team aboard the David Boyd research vessel spent much of the past summer scanning the depths of Lake Superior. The experts used marine sonar technology and explored wrecks with ROV, which is capable of diving to depths of 1,400 feet, per the GLSHS website.

“We’re traveling at over nine miles an hour as we’re searching, and we’re seeing great detail on the bottom [of the lake],” says GLSHS director of marine operators Darryl Ertel in the statement.

The GLSHS runs the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum (GLSM) in Whitefish Point, located in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Visitors to the museum, which is open May through October, can see the Drake’s rudder up close, per 9&10 News. Researchers first located the ship’s wreck in 1978.

Three 19th-Century Shipwrecks Discovered in Lake Superior
A marine sonar scan of the Dot wreckage Courtesy of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society

To date, an estimated 6,000 ships have sunk in the treacherous waters of the Great Lakes, mostly in the 19th and 20th centuries, GLSHS development officer Sean Ley told Smithsonian magazine’s Arcynta Ali Childs in 2011. As many as 30,000 people died in these maritime disasters.

American forces first fought for command of the Great Lakes during the War of 1812. The five enormous bodies of water later became important trade routes as Midwest industrial cities including Detroit, Chicago, Buffalo and Milwaukee sprang up along their shores.

According to the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, the cold, fresh water of the Great Lakes helps preserve many wrecks in mint condition. But invasive species such as zebra and quagga mussels pose an ever-increasing threat to the fragile, decomposing materials. Mussels grow on and corrupt the sunken vessels, making them “impossible to study,” per the GLSHS website.

Lynn says he hopes to eventually include the three newly discovered wrecks in museum exhibitions.

“Each shipwreck has its own story,” he adds in the statement. “[T]hese are fantastic, true stories that we can tell in the museum someday.”

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New evidence of maritime tragedies continues to surface. Last April, the remnants of two historic 19th-century vessels washed up on the shores of Lake Michigan. And, in 2018, the National Museum of the Great Lakesannounced that it had discovered the likely wreck of the Lake Serpent. The 47-foot schooner left Cleveland in September 1829 but sank with its cargo of limestone, making it the oldest-known shipwreck in Lake Erie.

One of the most famous shipwrecks in Great Lake history is the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald, a 729-foot freighter that capsized in Lake Superior during a severe storm on November 10, 1975. Sunk en route to a steel mill in Detroit, the vessel is the largest ship to have ever sunk in the lakes.

Twenty-nine men died in the disaster. The tragedy inspired Canadian Gordon Lightfoot to write the hit 1976 song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” In the track, the singer-songwriter croons, “Superior, they said, never gives up her dead / When the gales of November come early.”

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