Friday, September 10, 2004


Small boat has tall tales to tell - 1st article



WHOOPS!: Shipwreck hunters realize they found a small fishing and cargo boat, not a steam freighter.

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 News Tribune broke the story. The Associated Press distributed it to newspapers and news outlets across the nation. The rare discovery was the first on Lake Superior in three years.

"I thought I'd better confess," a red-faced Jerry Eliason of Scanlon, a member of the search-and-dive team, said this week. "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 and everything.

"To find anything that small in a lake so vast is really significant in itself," Holden said.

Eliason and his partners suspected their mistake about the same time their discovery made headlines across the country. Photos and video clips from cameras they lowered to the wreck just 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 shipwreck 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 good some good film of the name. The whole name this time," Eliason said.

"It doesn't bother me a mistake was made," said Merryman. "It's still a pretty neat little wreck."

For more on this story, including details of the Thomas Friant's connection to Bayfield, Wis., and the dramatic circumstances of her sinking, read the Wednesday edition of the Duluth News Tribune.

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