Thursday, December 23, 2004


Deep Dark Secrets: Shipwreck Hunters Find Benjamin Noble


by Chuck Frederick

The deep blue of a clear, cool evening settled over Lake Superior on Oct. 31 as the shipwreck hunters turned their boat for one final pass.

It had already been a huge year. They'd found two wrecks: one a three-masted schooner, the other a steam-powered passenger vessel. The discoveries came after about 12 years of locating nothing but bottom.

The men were hoping for a third. The bulk freighter Robert Wallace was out here somewhere, they knew, just a few miles south of Two Harbors. Footage of its remains would give them a real zinger for a presentation they were scheduled to make in a few days at the Gales of November conference in Duluth.

But their dreams of a third discovery in 2004 were growing as dim as the day's failing light. Their sonar screen held the steady gray of nothingness as they turned across 6-foot waves that rolled their boat and their stomachs.

They steadied the motor one last time for the final pass, after more than six hours on the water. They had already decided Halloween would be their last day hunting for the year. The marina back near Knife Island beckoned.

But a sudden, slight glow at the top of their sonar screen changed everything. The men quickly gathered as the glow became a touch more brilliant and then worked its way down the picture tube.

"It was a bright target, something that didn't look natural to the bottom," said Ken Merryman of Fridley, Minn., one of the four shipwreck hunters. "It was a terrible picture, but we could tell."

"It had the general outline of a ship," said Jerry Eliason of Scanlon, another member of the team. "I said, 'There's something out there. What is that?' "

The Wallace, the men figured. Had to be.

But, of course, they'd made that mistake before.

On June 5, about 13 miles south-southeast of Two Harbors, the men's sonar equipment detected the first wreck they found this year. After three follow-up weekend trips with cameras they lowered to the bottom, the men announced they had found the Wallace.

The ore-laden freighter had sunk Nov. 17, 1902, after hitting a log or something else in the water. With Lake Superior pouring into the Wallace's stern, the crew scrambled into a lifeboat and then boarded the barge they were towing, the 218-foot Ashland. The seamen had to be rescued by the railroad tug from Two Harbors, the Edna G.
The wreck the men found didn't turn out to be the Wallace, though.

In August, when they returned to dive to it for the first time, they quickly realized the wooden ship was probably the Thomas Friant, a steam-powered excursion boat that had been remodeled for commercial fishing and hauling cargo. The Friant sank after running into an ice floe and slashing its hull Jan. 6, 1924.

Believing for a second time they'd found the Wallace, the men lowered their video camera as the Halloween night sky turned an inky black. But the camera refused to work. No images returned to the surface.

"When we went in for the night, we were pretty confident we knew what we had found. The Wallace is what we were looking for, after all," Eliason said. "When we finally got to shore, all the lights were off in the marina. That's how late it was. We were lucky we didn't run aground ourselves."

The men decided they would call their bosses the following morning, take a day off and return to the wreck site with different cameras. To confirm and to begin documenting their find, they said.

"We just had to go back," Eliason said.

The first day of November dawned gray, with temperatures still reaching into the low 40s. About mid-morning, three video cameras lowered to the bottom began to return grainy images of floating silt, a sandy bottom and shapes that hadn't been seen for decades. A railing. A section of hull. The men compare viewing a wreck with a drop-down camera to looking at an elephant with a straw.

But they saw enough to realize the vessel they found wasn't made of wood, as is the Wallace. It was steel. And in its cargo hold they saw railroad rails.

"All of a sudden, a wave of knowing came over us," said Randy Beebe, a search team member and a Northwest Airlines pilot from Duluth. "Oh my goodness."

The only steel wreck unaccounted for in western Lake Superior was the Benjamin Noble, a loss ranking in shipwreck lore not far behind the Edmund Fitzgerald. The Noble went down with a load of steel rails.

That's what it had to be, the men realized.

"The Noble is the Loch Ness Monster, the Holy Grail of shipwrecks, at least in western Lake Superior," Eliason said. "It was always such a mystery. None of us who hunt for shipwrecks expected it would ever be found. There were literally thousands of miles where it could have gone down."

"People have been searching for 60 years," Beebe said. "We're pretty giddy. We still feel like we're going to wake up one morning and it's all going to be a dream."

The Noble's puzzling fate prompted Lake Superior Magazine to offer a $1,000 reward in 1978 to anyone who could locate it.

"It was just so hard to believe that a ship so big and with so much cargo couldn't be found. We wanted it solved," said Cindy Marshall Hayden, a publisher of the Duluth-based magazine and the daughter of magazine chairman James Marshall.

"It was a mystery my whole life," James Marshall said. "Its discovery is a terrific, fantastic story."

The Noble went down in a gale of mountainous seas, according to historical accounts, including Dana Thomas Bowen's "Shipwrecks of the Lakes."

The early spring storm of 1914 included heavy snow, biting sleet, a fog that enshrouded much of the western half of Lake Superior, and winds and waves so severe they caused thousands of dollars of damage to Duluth's Aerial Bridge and to homes up and down Minnesota Point.

The wind gusts also toppled a huge coal-unloading machine inside the Duluth Harbor, its falling wreckage smashing the forward houses of the steamer Champlain, which was tied to a nearby dock.

The Nor'easter came up so fast that the Noble probably received little or no warning as it passed through the Soo Locks on Saturday, April 25. With its 3,000-ton load bound for rail line construction in the western United States, the Noble steamed obliviously toward Duluth.

Three days later, a Duluth police officer reported finding hatch covers bearing the Noble's name washed up on the Park Point beach. Other wreckage washed up in the days that followed. Oars. Life belts. Spars. No bodies were ever found. The Noble's 20-man crew -- including its captain, John Eisenhardt of Milwaukee, on his first and last trip as master of a vessel -- was lost.

What happened to the Noble has been a matter of speculation and debate for decades.

A popular theory was that the Noble sank attempting to enter the Duluth Ship Canal. The crew couldn't see the entry, many believed, because the south entry pier light had been blown out by the storm. Light tenders couldn't relight the antiquated oil lamp because of waves that battered the pier heads, exploding into the icy air.

Conflicting witness accounts, both immediately following the loss and during months of testimony as the cargo owners sought compensation through the courts from the owners of the Noble, only deepened the mystery.

Some witnesses, including a woman on 21st Avenue East in Duluth, claimed to see a boat sink outside the Duluth Harbor. But it's possible they had seen any of four other vessels on Lake Superior during the storm, each one scrambling for safety inside the Duluth Harbor. Squalls of snow suddenly blocked out ships' lights, giving the illusion of vessels going down.

Another witness, aboard a freighter a few miles behind what he believed was the Noble, said in court he saw the big boat turn and then disappear. Based on where the Noble's wreckage was found, his account was probably accurate, Eliason said.

"There's so much confusing history, and you never knew who actually saw it go down or whether anyone really did. And then it was believed to be in such deep water there'd be no way to get at it," said Merryman, who searched for the Noble in 1973 but quickly gave up. "It was the first thing I ever hunted for. You didn't have to hunt long to realize it was a needle in a haystack.

"It really is beat up," he said of the wreckage. "It sank like a rock, and it was crushed when it hit bottom. It seems pretty obvious it was grossly overloaded."

At the Gales of November conference, the shipwreck hunters wowed the crowd. They told about the Friant and about a wreck they found July 30 several miles east of Michigan Island in the Apostle Islands. They've tentatively identified that wreck as the Moonlight, a three-masted schooner lost in a storm in September 1903.

They saved the Noble until the very end. It was their zinger.

"We had quite a season," Eliason said. "Granted, none of the wrecks we found this year were the ones we were looking for, but that's all right. We've decided that being lucky is far better than being good."

SOURCE - Duluth News Tribune

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