Even for the Thunder Bay area, a perilous swath of northern Lake Huron off the Michigan coast, the fate of the Ironton seems particularly cruel.
On a blustery night in September 1894, the 191ft cargo vessel collided with a grain hauler, sinking both. The captain of the Ironton and six sailors clambered into a lifeboat but it was dragged to the bottom before they could detach it from the ship. Two crewmen survived.
The gravesite long eluded shipwreck hunters but the mystery has now been solved, officials with the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary in Alpena, Michigan, said on Wednesday.
A team of historians, underwater archaeologists and technicians located the wreckage in 2019 and deployed remote-controlled cameras to scan and document it, said the sanctuary superintendent, Jeff Gray. The sanctuary plans to reveal the location and is considering placing a buoy at the site. Officials have kept the find secret to stop divers disturbing the site.
Video footage shows the Ironton upright on the lake bottom, hundreds of feet down and “remarkably preserved” by the cold, fresh water, Gray said.
No human remains were seen. But the lifeboat remains tethered to the bigger vessel, a poignant confirmation of witness accounts.
“Archaeologists study things to learn about the past. But it’s not really things that we’re studying, it’s people,” Gray said. “And that lifeboat … really connects you to the site and reminds you of how powerful the lakes are and what it must have been like to work on them and lose people on them.”
The search and inspections involved organizations including Ocean Exploration Trust, founded by Robert Ballard, who located the wreckage of the Titanic and the German battleship Bismarck.
“We hope this discovery helps contribute to an element of closure to the extended families of those lost on the Ironton, and the communities impacted by its loss,” Ballard said. “The Ironton is yet another piece of the puzzle of Alpena’s fascinating place in America’s history of trade” while the Thunder Bay sanctuary “continues to reveal lost chapters of maritime history”.
Nearly 200 shipwrecks are believed to rest within or near the boundaries of the sanctuary, which includes the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center in Alpena and some 4,300 square miles of north-western Lake Huron.
Several factors made the area a “shipwreck alley” until modern navigation and weather forecasting reduced the danger, said Stephanie Gandulla, the sanctuary resource protection coordinator.
The late 1800s was a busy period for Great Lakes commerce. Thousands of schooners and hundreds of steamers hauled cargo and passengers between bustling cities such as Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland.
Vessels cruised to and from Lake Huron and Lake Michigan through the Straits of Mackinac. Others ranged north to Lake Superior, fetching iron ore for steel mills from mines in Minnesota and Michigan.
“It’s where the upbound and downbound shipping kind of crossed each other,” Gray said. “Busy intersections are where most accidents happen.”
The weather was notoriously unstable, with dense fog and sudden storms. Islands and submerged reefs lurked.
On the night the Ironton went down, it and another schooner barge, the Moonlight, were being towed north from Ashtabula, Ohio, by a steam-powered ship, much as a train engine pulls freight cars on a railroad. They were bound for Marquette, on Lake Superior.
The steamer broke down in heavy seas around 12.30am the morning of 26 September. The Ironton and the Moonlight disconnected and drifted apart, with the Ironton crew setting sails and firing up its engine. It veered off course and ran into the Ohio, a freighter loaded with 1,000 tons of flour, about 10 miles off Presque Isle, Michigan.
The Ohio foundered, its crew of 16 rescued by the Moonlight. The Ironton stayed afloat more than an hour before going down.
Newspapers quoted William Parry as saying he and two other Ironton sailors bobbed in the lake for about 30 minutes until another steamer, the Charles Hebard, showed up and lowered a lifeboat.
They picked up the other two Ironton men but a wave overturned the craft, flinging everyone into the water. Hebard crewmen tossed lines and pulled all to safety except the Ironton mate, Ed Boswick, who could not hold on.
“It’s a powerful, tragic story,” Gandulla said.
The gale claimed yet another schooner, the William Home, farther west on Lake Michigan. Six of seven crew members died.
Staffers with the sanctuary, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, took a sonar survey in the area of the Ironton-Ohio collision in 2017. They detected two images on the lake bed, one later identified as the Ohio. The other was a more recent shipwreck.
It took two more years to track down the Ironton, several miles away. Ballard’s organization provided an autonomous surface vehicle. It spotted a figure later confirmed as the Ironton.
A high-resolution scan in 2021 provided more details. The vessel is largely intact, Gray said. Its masts point skyward, with rigging and ropes tied to spars and lying on deck. The camera also showed the lifeboat tied to the ship’s stern.
The sanctuary awaits federal and state permits to plant the buoy on the lake floor. Divers could attach boats to the buoy and head down.
“Then we get to share it with the rest of the world,” Gray said, “and try to protect it so our grandkids can enjoy these sites the same way that we do today.”
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