Lost Ship Discovered in Lake Huron Confirming Tragic Survivor Tale
One evening in September 1894 a tragedy occurred on Lake Huron in the Great Lakes. A tragedy which led to the loss of five lives. However, it wasn’t until a breakthrough discovery by a team of researchers that the reason for this loss of life was confirmed.
The tragedy centres on the schooner barge the Ironton. This 772-ton, three-masted vessel spent its working life being towed across the Great Lakes, transporting cargoes as varied as iron ore, grain, and coal.
The Ironton was but one single part of what was known as the ‘consort system’. This involved steamers towing one or multiple schooner barges across the Great Lakes. It was thanks to the consort system that shipping companies were able to transport greater quantities of cargo at lower costs.
The Ironton successfully plied its trade for just over 20 years until, at 12:30am on the 26th September, disaster struck.
Being towed by the 190-foot steamer Charles J. Kershaw, the Ironton left Ashtabula, Ohio bound for Marquette, Michigan on Lake Superior. There, it would be loaded with cargo.
However, the Ironton would never reach Marquette.
Whilst sailing across Lake Huron, the Kershaw’s engines failed, leaving the ship stranded and without power. Exacerbating the situation, a strong wind arose, pushing the two barges - the Ironton and the Moonlight - towards the Kershaw.
In order to avoid what would be a catastrophic collision, the captain of the Kershaw took the decision to cut the two barges adrift.
The result was that the Ironton, and her crew, found themselves adrift in the pitch blackness of Lake Huron, at the mercy of the lake’s changeable conditions.
Acutely aware of the seriousness of the situation, Captain Peter Girard and his crew fought to gain control of the Ironton, firing up the vessel’s auxiliary steam engine in addition to trying to set the sails.
Alas, it was to no avail.
Propelled by strong winds from astern, the Ironton was propelled off course into the path of the oncoming steamer, the Ohio.
Loaded with 1,000 tons of grain, the 203-foot wooden freighter smashed into the Ironton, causing immense damage. As one of the Ironton’s two survivors stated in a later interview with the Duluth News Tribune:
“At this time we sighted a steamer on our starboard bow. She came up across our bow, and we struck her on the quarter about aft of the boiler house. A light was lowered over our bow, and we saw a hole in our port bow and our stem splintered”.
Both vessels became separated shortly after the collision - with both being fatally damaged.
The collision had resulted in the Ironton tearing a 12-foot diameter hole in the Ohio’s wooden hull. Being heavily laden with 1,000 tons of grain, the Ohio sank rapidly. Luckily, all 16 of her crew members were able to escape on lifeboats.
Nearby ships came to the aid of the lifeboats, rescuing the Ohio’s survivors.
The Ironton wasn’t as lucky.
Severely damaged, the vessel drifted out of sight of the responding ships, whilst Captain Girard fought to save the ship.
After an hour of drifting, it became apparent that the Ironton could not be saved. As the ship began to sink, the seven-man crew rushed to the Ironton’s lifeboat.
In the commotion, however, none of the crew remembered to untie the ‘painter’ - a line that secured the lifeboat to the ship. As a result, when the Ironton sank, it took the lifeboat down with it.
As a result, five of the seven crew members lost their lives.
Survivor, William W. Parry, described the scene as follows:
“Then the Ironton sank, taking the yawl with her. As the painter was not untied, I sank underwater, and when I came up grabbed a sailor’s bag. Wooley (the other survivor) was a short distance from me on a box. I swam to where he was”.
Following hours spent bobbing on the waves of the Huron, Wooley and Parry were rescued by the passing steamer Charles Hebard.
And, that was it. The Ironton and the Ohio both sat at the bottom of Lake Huron for over a century.
By 2017, the search had begun to uncover the final resting places of both the Ironton and Ohio. A group of partners, headed by the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, led an expedition to survey over 100 square miles of unmapped lakebed (the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary protects a nationally significant collection of nearly 100 historic shipwrecks in Lake Huron).
The expedition was a success, with the team discovering the Ohio in 300 feet of water. Yet, the Ironton remained elusive.
Fast-forward to 2019, and the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary was determined to discover the wreck of the Ironton. To improve their chances this time around, they enlisted the help of the Ocean Exploration Trust - which is led by Dr. Robert Ballard, the discoverer of the wreck of the Titanic.
Knowing the location of the Ohio, the team were able to conduct research into the weather and wind conditions at the time of the tragedy. From there, they defined an area to be searched.
The resulting search proved successful, discovering the remains of the Ironton.
The success of the search can in large part be attributed to the use of advanced technologies including ‘BEN’ - a 12-foot, diesel-powered, self-driving boat equipped with a high-resolution multibeam sonar for mapping.
Only a month after the discovery, the researchers returned - but this time with a remotely operated vehicle (ROV). Capturing extensive video footage, the ROV revealed that the Ironton was resting upright and was incredibly well-preserved thanks to the ice-cold waters of the lake.
The Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary plans to develop educational materials to help tell the story of Ironton and other shipwrecks in the lake.
The Sanctuary also intends to mark the site of the wreck with a deep-water mooring buoy. It’s hoped this will better facilitate diver visits to the wreck site.
Aside from these actions, the discovery of the Ironton acts as an important reminder about the long history of the interaction between the people and the lakes of the U.S.
As the superintendent of the Thunder Bay Sanctuary, Jeff Gray, puts it:
“The discovery of the Ironton inspires us to keep exploring. We will continue to map Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, and this research will ultimately lead to even more discoveries about the Great Lakes and the unique collection of shipwrecks that rest on the lakebed”.
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- Andrew Yarwood