Researchers have announced the discovery of the wreck of the schooner barge Ironton in Lake Huron, sitting upright with masts and rigging still intact and with the lifeboat that could have saved her crew still lashed to the ship’s stern. It was this mistake—failing to untie the painter in time—that led to five men’s deaths on September 26, 1894, as the ship sank so quickly it dragged the lifeboat down as it plunged hundreds of feet into the frigid water.
The Ironton is the latest discovery in the maritime archaeology treasure trove of NOAA’s 4,300-square-mile Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, whose cold, fresh water has made its hundreds of shipwrecks among the best preserved in the world. Taken as a whole, the schooners, steamboats, steel freighters, and other vessels that rest in the sanctuary represent a singular, otherworldly museum of maritime history.
The images of the Ironton are beautiful and haunting, and coupled with illustrations rendered with sonar imaging, they reveal a ship whose primary features—hull, three masts, rigging, bowsprit, and anchor still on deck—are so intact, she could be sitting pier side, ready to take on the 48,500 bushels of grain or 1,250 tons of coal she was built to carry.
“The discovery illustrates how we can use the past to create a better future,” said Jeff Gray, Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary superintendent. “Using this cutting-edge technology, we have not only located a pristine shipwreck lost for over a century, we are also learning more about one of our nation’s most important natural resources—the Great Lakes. This research will help protect Lake Huron and its rich history.”
On the night of September 26, 1894, Ironton and another schooner barge were in tow behind the steamer Charles J. Kershaw—a typical arrangement for these vessels—empty and en route to Marquette, Michigan, on Lake Superior. The Kershaw lost power, and as the wind pushed the schooners toward it, Kershaw cut them loose. The captain and crew of the Ironton struggled to quickly fire up her steam engine and set sails, but in the darkness, she drifted into the path of the Ohio, a 203-foot wooden freighter loaded with 1,000 tons of grain.
The collision proved fatal to both ships. As the Ohio sank more quickly, nearby ships helped rescue her 16 crew. Meanwhile, the Ironton drifted away from the rescuing vessels, and by the time she went down, she was alone. As the captain and crew raced to get into the lifeboat, they failed to untie the painter in time; all seven went under with the ship, and only two surfaced to survive the wreck and be rescued several hours later by a passing steamer.
Ironton’s precise location was a mystery for more than 120 years until researchers from the sanctuary, the state of Michigan, and Ocean Exploration Trust used cutting-edge oceanographic technology to discover and document the shipwreck.
Initially, researchers had found the wreck of the Ohio in about 300 feet of water, after surveying 100 square miles of unmapped seafloor in the sanctuary in 2017.
Using the Ohio’s position and extrapolating weather information from the night of the sinking, sanctuary researchers in 2019 refined the search area. They partnered with Ocean Exploration Trust’s world-renowned oceanographers and latest technologies, including BEN (Bathymetric Explorer and Navigator), a 12-foot, diesel-powered, autonomous vessel carrying high-resolution multibeam sonar.
Working with the NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab’s RV Storm, a 50-foot research vessel equipped with multibeam sonar, they finally located what they believed to be the wreck. It took further months of research—teaming with the University of North Carolina’s Undersea Vehicle Program and using a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) deployed from the USCG cutter Mobile Bay—to positively identify it.
The delay in announcing the discovery publicly was due in part to Covid-19 field work restrictions during all of 2020 and some of 2021 that put much of the work on hold, says Stephanie Gandulla, the sanctuary’s resource protection coordinator. And, mounting expeditions to return to the wreck’s location and depth requires a great deal of time, planning, and coordination.
For more images, history, and information about the Ironton and Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, visit thunderbay.noaa.gov/