A schooner barge that sank with its lifeboat still attached in Lake Huron 128 years ago has been discovered, the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary announced Wednesday.
The Ironton, a 772-ton ship measuring 191 feet long, collided with a wooden freighter and sank to the bottom of the third-largest Great Lake on September 26, 1894. On board the ship were seven crew members who fled to the lifeboat. In all the action, however, the line connecting the lifeboat to the Ironton was never untied. Two of the crew members survived the shipwreck.
“Archaeologists study things to learn about the past,” Jeff Gray, superintendent of the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary told the Associated Press. “But it’s not really things that we’re studying; it’s people. 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 ship was discovered in 2019 by teams from the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary and Ocean Exploration Trust, but the announcement of the discovery was delayed until Wednesday to give researchers the opportunity to further investigate the site and confirm it was the Ironton.
The Ironton was being towed along with the schooner Moonlight by the Charles J. Kershaw, a steam-powered ship. Steam-powered ships towing schooners was common at that time, much like a train engine pulling freight cars, the Associated Press notes. The ships departed Ashtabula, Ohio, on Lake Erie and were on their way to Marquette, Michigan on Lake Superior.
On September 26, 1894, at 12:30 a.m. on Lake Huron, the engine of the Kershaw failed, prompting sailors on the schooners to disconnect their towlines to avoid entanglement and collision, the National Marine Sanctuaries press release says. The ships drifted apart and the Ironton was blown by the wind into the path of the Ohio steamer, which was heading south. The two ships collided head-on.
Both ships sustained damage and Ohio sank quickly, but not before all 16 crewmembers were able to board lifeboats for rescue. The Ironton drifted for at least an hour, according to the press release, and was not in view of any vessels who could save the crew. The seven-man crew of Ironton boarded the lifeboat but failed to untie the towlines. Only two men survived, one of whom told the story to the Duluth News Tribune a day after the incident.
“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 was a short distance from me on a box. I swam to where he was,” William W. Parry, one of the survivors, shared with the paper.
The press release states that the Ironton is “magnificently preserved” in the cold water of Lake Huron, hundreds of feet below the surface. The ship rests upright with all three masts still standing, an anchor resting on the bow, and the lifeboat at the stern.
“It is hard to call it a shipwreck,” Gray told The New York Times. “It’s a ship, sitting on the bottom, fully intact, and the lifeboat there, literally, is a moment frozen in time.”
The wreck site of Ohio was discovered in 2017 in 300 feet of water. Using its location, researchers employed autonomous surface vehicles and the conditions the night of Ironton’s sinking to map the search area. Through the use of sonar imaging, they were finally able to locate the ship, later confirming it was the Ironton.
The Thunder Bay National Marine sanctuary plans on adding a deep-water mooring buoy to mark the site of the wreck, allowing future divers to explore the well-preserved ship.