Marine News from the Great Lakes

Discovering, Exploring History Under Great Lakes Waters

Published: Monday, July 10, 2017 6:00 am

Shipwrecks fascinate everyone–the mystery, the tragedy, and the interest in a lifestyle lived long ago. In the Great Lakes, there are around 8000 ships that have wrecked since Europeans began sailing the Inland Seas. This includes wrecks from the earliest, LaSalle’s Le Griffon in 1679, to the behemoth Edmund Fitzgerald in 1975, and beyond.

The Great Lakes are an especially treacherous area, which is why you see so many accidents over the centuries of travel. They are enclosed bodies of water, which leads to differing weather patterns and differing responses of the bodies of water to those weather patterns. Lake Superior is over 1300 feet deep at its deepest point and can create waves over 30 feet tall in the middle of storms. Lake Michigan, with its north/south orientation, leaves very few places to hide from the winds of a November blow. Lake Erie, while the shallowest, can beat up 10-15 foot waves in just a few hours, leaving mariners no time to get to safety. While ships sink for many reasons, weather is a contributing factor in 75-80% of all accidents on the Great Lakes.

There are many ways to learn more about shipwrecks on the Great Lakes: organizations sponsor presentations, people research and write about shipwrecks, groups are actively involved in the discovery of shipwreck locations, and archaeologists study the wreck sites for answers about our lost history. At the new National Museum of the Great Lakes in Toledo, Ohio, they do all of this through their Peachman Great Lakes Shipwreck Research Program!

The most prominent of these activities is their grants of two groups, Cleveland Underwater Explorers and Jim Kennard, that search for shipwrecks in Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. These sponsorships have led to some amazing discoveries!

In 2015, the Cleveland Underwater Explorers discovered one of the most environmentally dangerous wrecks in the Great Lakes, the tank barge Argo. The Argo had been built on the East Coast for coastal and riverine navigation and brought onto the Great Lakes for just this trip in 1937. She had been hauled up to Sault Ste. Marie to load benzole, a petroleum product, at the Algoma Steel plant. As they made their way back through Lake Erie, returning, hopefully, to New Jersey, a storm whipped up. With a full cargo, the Argo had very little freeboard and quickly succumbed to the waves. Its location was not discovered again until two years ago. With quick action by the United States Coast Guard, 10,000 gallons of benzene were pumped out of the Argo in the fall of 2015 and it is no longer a threat to our lake and shores.

In 2016, at the other end of the spectrum of shipwreck discoveries, another group that NMGL sponsors on Lake Ontario, Jim Kennard, Roger Pawlowski, and Roland Stevens, discovered a very early sloop called Washington. The Washington was built in 1797-1798 near what is now Erie, Pennsylvania. She sailed the eastern end of Lake Erie until she was sold to merchants in Queenstown, Ontario in 1801. That winter, the Washington was transported over land, around Niagara Falls, and re-launched into Lake Ontario. On November 6, 1803, the Washington sailed west from Kingston with a cargo of goods, like salt, flour, and tools, along with 3 crew members and 2 passengers. A severe storm came through and nothing was heard of the Washington or the men on board. Her small boat along with some cargo were found ashore near Oswego, NY. This discovery appears to be the oldest commercial shipwreck that has been found in the Great Lakes. It is also one of the first vessels to travel on both Lake Erie and Lake Ontario.

Discovering shipwrecks is exciting, but once they have been found, the archaeological study can teach us more about the shipwreck and surrounding stories. The National Museum of the Great Lakes works closely with a volunteer group, the Maritime Archaeological Survey Team (MAST), to survey shipwrecks in Lake Erie. In 2016, and continuing this summer, the two groups are working to map the remains of the Admiral, a tug boat that was lost with all 14 crew members off Avon Lake, Ohio in a serious storm on December 2, 1942. This accident happened with no cries of help from the crew to their tow, the Cleveco. It is unknown what caused the Admiral to sink so quickly and without warning. The first evidence that was known of her loss was when the watch on the Cleveco went forward to check the tow line and realized that it went straight down into the murky depths of the lake. (The Cleveco went on to sink later that night as well with the loss of all 18 crew members). The Admiral was discovered again in the 1980’s and has been a popular SCUBA diving spot for many years. The purpose of the archaeological investigation that is currently ongoing is to hopefully gain some insight as to what happened that fateful night. If that doesn’t occur (sometimes “Why?” isn’t answerable), then at least a site map has been created for SCUBA divers to use when they visit this shipwreck.

Discovery and archaeological investigation are only important if the results of those endeavors are shared with others. The National Museum of the Great Lakes publishes the finest journal on Great Lakes history, Inland Seas, which is where you can find more in-depth stories about the above shipwrecks. It is also a record for other shipwreck stories provided by researchers across the Lakes. Stories that have appeared in Inland Seas have become the basis for some of the shipwreck exhibits at NMGL in Toledo, Ohio.

Public programming about shipwrecks can be found in almost every town surrounding the lakes; it is a topic that is clamored for by everyone. The National Museum of the Great Lakes presents a yearly symposium called “Wreck-A-Palooza” and invites shipwreck hunters and archaeologists from across the Great Lakes to present their research. October 3, 2017 is the second half of this year’s symposium (first half was in June) and will present research from two archaeologists from Wisconsin. Tamara Thomsen will discuss the Milwaukee, a railroad car ferry that sank in Lake Michigan on October 22, 1929. Caitlin Zant will present research about James Davidson, a shipbuilder from Bay City, Michigan, who built large wooden ships up until the turn of the 20th century. As part of her research, she will use archaeological evidence from six of the seven Davidson ships that were lost in Wisconsin waters.

For tickets to Wreck-A-Palooza, information on becoming involved with the Peachman Great Lakes Shipwreck Research Program at the National Museum of the Great Lakes, and subscription details to Inland Seas, please visit

Second Annual Wreck-a-Palooza
Tragedy and Discovery from Lake Superior to Lake Ontario

Session II: Saturday, October 7, 2017

Presentation 1 – 11:00am
Davidson’s Goliaths – Evolution of Design of the Great Lakes’ Longest Wooden Ships
Ms. Caitlin Zant, Archaeologist, Wisconsin Historical Society

James Davidson was one of the most prolific shipbuilders on the Great Lakes and is known for building the world’s largest wooden vessels long into an era when many of his contemporaries were building with steel. At a time when iron and steel were becoming the accepted building materials in shipyards across the world, Davidson continued making innovations in technology that pushed the accepted size limits of wooden vessels to a proportion never thought possible. Today, Wisconsin is a significant repository of Davidson’s record-breaking vessels in the form of shipwreck sites. Seven of Davidson’s vessels have been lost or abandoned in Wisconsin waters and six of those have been located, recorded, and are now represented in the archaeological record. The shipwrecks Australasia, Adriatic, Frank O’Connor, City of Glasgow, Appomattox and Pretoria remain remarkable testaments to Davidson’s shipbuilding prowess and innovative technological design, preserved beneath Wisconsin’s cold, clear waters.

Presentation 2 – 1:00pm
The Wreck of the Railroad Car Ferry Milwaukee
Ms. Tamara Thomsen, Underwater Archaeologist – Wisconsin Historical Society

At 3pm on October 22, 1929, two days before Black Thursday set off the U.S. stock market crash and the Great Depression, the railroad car ferry Milwaukee pulled away from the Grand Trunk slip in Milwaukee, lowered her sea gate and set out on her afternoon run across Lake Michigan with her hold full of freight cars. Although a tremendous storm was raging on the Lake and other vessels had cancelled their trips because of the gale, her Master, Capt. Robert “Bad Weather” McKay kept to the railroad’s schedule. The ship never made Grand Haven, Michigan. Days later, bodies of some of her crewmen and lifeboats were picked from the water and a note in a message case was found on a Michigan beach.

The car ferry Milwaukee rests in 125 feet of water. She has long been a favorite dive site in the Milwaukee area and featured in television shows and documentaries. Wisconsin Historical Society completed the first comprehensive archaeological survey of the Milwaukee, which resulted in the nomination of the shipwreck to the National Register of Historic Places. Join Wisconsin Historical Society’s Maritime Archaeologist, Tamara Thomsen for an in-depth look at the car ferry Milwaukee’s history. Discover what others have overlooked and misreported pertaining to her loss, and learn what really happened in the final hours of this great ship.

When:                  Saturday, October 7, 2017; 11am-2pm

Where:                 National Museum of the Great Lakes, 1701 Front Street, Toledo, Ohio 43605

Cost:                    Single Presentation: NMGL Members - $12, Non-Members - $15
                             Single Session (2 presentations and 1 lunch): NMGL Members - $35, Non-Members - $40

tags: History

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