1891 shipwreck found in Lake Superior

On May 4, 1891, as high winds and waves raged on Lake Superior, the crew of a schooner named Atlanta abandoned ship as it sank. The six...


On May 4, 1891, as high winds and waves raged on Lake Superior, the crew of a schooner named Atlanta abandoned ship as it sank. The six men and one woman, a cook, clung to their lifeboat for nine hours, battling at its oars to guide it to the coast of Michigan.

As they approached land, according to archival information, the lifeboat capsized at the sight of a distant rescue patrol, who mistook it for a tree trunk rolling in the water turbulent. Six of the crew managed to get back into the boat, but it tipped again. Only two men survived.

This month, the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society said the Atlanta wreck had been found after it lay undetected in the cold oblivion of the lake’s depths for more than a century. The announcement rekindled the story of how the Atlanta crew members fought for their lives on the world’s largest freshwater lake.

“All of a sudden our cameras were on it,” Bruce Lynn, executive director of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum in Paradise, Michigan, said in an interview. “We were the first human eyes to look at this since that dramatic moment. I almost jumped out of my chair.

Lake Superior, which is also bordered by Minnesota, Wisconsin and Ontario, Canada, has always been criss-crossed by shipping lanes. The high volume of traffic led to collisions, which resulted in the sinking of hundreds of ships, turning the lake’s deepest terrain into a maritime graveyard ready to be discovered.

In 2021, the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society, the nonprofit that runs the museum, had its best season for locating shipwrecks, Lynn said, helped by good weather and side scan sonar, which sends and receives acoustic pulses that help map the seabed and detect submerged objects. It discovered nine wrecks, including the Atlanta, the most in any season, after towing the sonar for 2,500 miles, said Darryl Ertel, director of marine operations for the company.

Hundreds of shipwrecks are estimated to lie in the nearly 32,000 square mile lake, many in the Whitefish Point area on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, which the Atlanta’s crew members desperately attempted to reach in their lifeboat.

Last July, the company’s researchers trailed the sonar in a grid pattern across the lake. They spotted a feature 650 feet deep that they couldn’t immediately identify and marked it for future exploration.

Atlanta is slowly making itself known.

Mr. Lynn returned with the crew in August. The weather was calm. They lowered a remote-controlled device into the water. As his camera moved away, a ship appeared, its curls shimmering in the clear water. (Lake Superior doesn’t have the invasive zebra mussels that encrust shipwrecks in the other Great Lakes.)

The letters on the ship’s name spelled “Atlanta”.

“It was a target we had found earlier but we weren’t sure what it was,” Mr Lynn said. “You never really know until you see a smoking gun. That name board was it. It unequivocally announced ‘This is who I am.’

Lake Superior shipwrecks are intimately tied to history. In 1918, as the First World War drew to a close, two minesweepers built in Canada for France sank, killing dozens of sailors. In 1975, the Edmund Fitzgerald, one of the largest freighters on the Great Lakes, sank in driving snow. with 29 men on board without sending a distress signal, becoming a cultural legend thanks to a haunting ballad by Gordon Lightfoot.

The Atlanta voyage was typical of the Industrial Revolution, when schooners ferried iron ore and coal across Lake Superior, Fred Stonehouse said. a local historian.

About 550 wrecks have been located in the lake, while up to 40 ships are still missing. Their journeys were recorded by officials at the locks – the passages that connect the lakes – and in newspaper articles about ship traffic. “‘Sailed in a crevasse of the lake’ is the phrase you often saw a century ago,” Mr Stonehouse said.

Sometimes bodies or pieces of wreckage appeared, he said.

“It’s really about solving historical mysteries,” Stonehouse said.

The discovery of the Atlanta, about 35 miles offshore, intrigued researchers due to first-hand accounts from survivors. In early May 1891, the Soo Democrat, a weekly, published a series of reports on the ill-fated voyage and the rescue.

The 172-foot Atlanta, loaded with coal, had departed from Buffalo, NY, for Duluth, Minnesota. On May 3, 1891, he encountered a light breeze. At night, “one of the worst gales to sweep across the largest of all lakes raged,” reported the Soo Democrat. The storm fell on the Atlanta, which was being towed, sails down, by another ship, the Wilhelm.

The towline broke and the Atlanta began to take on water, which her crew tried to avoid with a pump.

At 9 a.m. on May 4, the ship, with 10 feet of water in her hull, was abandoned. With the gale “raging”, the crew remained on the lifeboat for nine hours. About 200 meters from Whitefish Point, the lifeboat capsized at the sight of a rescuer from the American Lifesaving Servicea precursor to the Coast Guard, who mistook him for a tree trunk rolling in the waves.

All but one of the Atlanta’s crew members climbed back into the lifeboat. After another 100 meters, it capsized again.

“It was here that the struggle for life raged fiercest,” the newspaper reports.

The other crew members were seen floating in the water before sinking under the waves, the newspaper said. Two of them, identified as John Pickel and “Nellie” Wait, were removed from the “more dead than alive” waves and were “all that remains to tell the story of a struggle that eclipses fiction in its terrible details”.

Atlanta will remain calm. A Michigan law makes it illegal to raise wreckage, but Mr Lynn said it would also be like plundering a burial ground.

“They are like burial places,” he said. Finding Atlanta, he added, “was lucky. There were survivors who can tell us what happened.

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Newsrust - US Top News: 1891 shipwreck found in Lake Superior
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