Friday, September 10, 2004


Nitrogen narcosis? Red-faced shipwreck hunters admit they got it all wrong - 2nd article


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DULUTH, Minnesota (7 Sep 2004) -- Divers taking their first look at a Lake Superior shipwreck last month made an embarrassing discovery.

It wasn't the wreck they thought it was.

The team of shipwreck hunters from Minnesota and Wisconsin had announced in July they found the bulk freighter Robert Wallace in more than 300 feet of water about 13 miles south-southeast of Two Harbors. The discovery was the first on Lake Superior in three years.

"I thought I'd better confess," said a red-faced Jerry Eliason of Scanlon, a member of the search-and-dive team. "This has never happened to us before. I mean, we were looking for a wooden wreck in the shipping lane and we found a wooden wreck in the shipping lane.

"Just not the one we thought."

The five-man team actually discovered the Thomas Friant, a steam-powered passenger vessel that had been rebuilt for commercial fishing and to haul cargo. It sank south of Two Harbors in January 1924. Its nine-man crew rowed a lifeboat through a frigid night and survived to tell a harrowing tale.

"It's still an important find," said Thom Holden, director of the Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center in Duluth. "It's a boat that was missing a long time. It has a lot of local connections with commercial fishing and the Apostle Islands and Bayfield."

Eliason and his partners suspected their mistake about the time their discovery made headlines across the country. Photos and video clips from cameras they lowered to the wreck didn't jibe with the historic photos they found.

The wreck didn't seem big enough to be the 209-foot Wallace. And their images from the bottom didn't include some of the things you'd expect to find on a freighter. They didn't see cargo hatches, bollards for tying up, or a bulwark railing.

A pole the men thought was a mast wound up being remnants of a smokestack. And the "RO" on the boat's nameplate for ROBERT WALLACE turned out to be an "HO" for THOMAS FRIANT.

"When I looked at everything, I said, 'You know what I think this is? This is a small packet steamer, a little cargo boat that carried fish or mail or other things,' " said search team member Ken Merryman of Fridley, Minn., an engineer who runs scuba charters off Isle Royale.

Merryman began to dig through old books to find clues about the wreck's true identity. He happened across the Thomas Friant, noting how it sank in the same area and how its features matched the images captured by his team's drop-down cameras.

On Aug. 1, the team made its first dive to the wreck and confirmed what it had begun to suspect.

"We got some good film of the name. The whole name this time," Eliason said.

"It doesn't bother me a mistake was made," Merryman said. "It's still a pretty neat little wreck. It's not as big or as much to explore as the Wallace would have been."


But the wreck still has a bronze bell, a whistle, and a compass on the front deck. The Thomas Friant also has a fascinating history.

Launched in 1884 in Grand Haven, Mich., a posh Friant carried tourists between Lake Michigan resorts for more than 15 years. After a fire in 1910, the 96-foot boat was converted to haul cargo and for commercial fishing.

That's when Bayfield school chums Halvor Reitan and Einar "Shine" Miller found it in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., and decided to buy it.

According to the Journal of the Lake Superior Marine Museum Association in Duluth, the men figured they could make a fortune hauling freight between Duluth and the Apostle Islands. But they didn't figure on area roads being improved and trucks being used more and more to deliver goods.

The men turned to commercial fishing instead, hauling in as much as 27 tons of herring a day, the Journal reported. The catches were so good, the men decided to keep fishing into the winter, a risky proposition due to extreme cold, sudden storms and drifting ice.

In January 1924, Reitan, Miller and a crew set out aboard the Friant from Cornucopia in search of lake trout and whitefish. They decided to sail toward Two Harbors, avoiding drifting ice as best they could.

Some floes couldn't be avoided, though. A particularly jagged chunk slashed the Friant's 2-inch-thick exterior planking. Water snuck inside and froze unnoticed between the planking and the boat's oak lining.

The leak wasn't detected until the Friant hit open water and was able to run wide open. Its steam engines warmed up, causing the ice between the planking and the lining to begin melting.

Pumps were turned on immediately, but they weren't able to keep up. Rising water inside the hull quickly doused the fires that produced the steam that powered the engines and the pumps. The Friant fell silent.

Knowing they were in trouble, crew members clambered aboard a lifeboat and watched as their boat slipped beneath the waves. The Friant sank at about 4 p.m. on the sixth day of 1924, according to the Journal.

Knowing the South Shore was socked in with ice, the men decided to row toward lights they saw flickering along the North Shore.

"The rowing kept them warm," Miller's son, Jim, of Bayfield said this week. "The men's jackets, from the spray constantly coming over the side, their coats froze open. But fortunately, they had a brand-new lifeboat. They were able to take it through ice and large waves. And they were able to survive."

After nine hours of rowing into below-zero blackness, the men hit shore at about Larsmont. They came face to face with a rocky cliff covered by glare ice. At the top of the cliff they spotted a fishing shack with a single flame burning in one window.

The men handed an axe to Reitan, the youngest and presumably strongest among them, the Journal said. Reitan scaled the wall. By about 1:30 a.m., he and his crewmates were thawing out with toasted biscuits and hot coffee, compliments of the astonished fishermen.

"The going didn't get any easier once they got to shore, but they made it, miraculously," said Larry Reitan of Bayfield, the nephew of Halvor Reitan. "Finding the Friant means quite a bit to my family. It'll be really neat to know where exactly it went down. I've always been curious to see just how far they had to row that night."


Eliason, Merryman and their team plan to make at least four more dives to the Friant, perhaps this autumn. They'll photograph, videotape and document the wreck. They plan to present their findings this winter.

While on the site, they'll also fire up their sonar and resume their slow circles across the surface of Lake Superior. The hunt for the Robert Wallace isn't over.

"We feel the pressure is on to find the real Robert Wallace," Eliason said. "We'll do it. We kind of have to now."

SOURCE - News Tribune

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