Thursday, July 21, 2005


Legend yields to truth with Lake Superior shipwreck discovery


Star Tribune
By Larry Oakes
July 20, 2005

Benjamin Noble.

DULUTH -- For more than 90 years it was a secret Lake Superior wouldn't tell: the deep, dark place where it had entombed the 239-foot Great Lakes freighter Benjamin Noble and its crew of 20 men.

The Noble sank during the predawn darkness of April 28, 1914, during a vicious storm. The most anyone could surmise was that it went down somewhere between Two Harbors and Duluth, off the North Shore.

Duluth maritime publisher James Marshall was so intrigued by the mystery that in 1987 he offered a $1,000 reward for the discovery of the wreck.

And he smiled broadly Tuesday as he paid the reward to a team of amateur but experienced wreck hunters who stumbled upon the Noble last fall.

"I've been waiting a lot of years to give this check out," Marshall, chairman of Lake Superior Magazine, said during the ceremony in Duluth's Canal Park, with the world's biggest lake for a backdrop.

The water was a gentle blue, appearing hardly the killer it was on the day it swallowed the Noble and its entire crew.

Lights disappeared
The Noble, a steamer built in 1909, had left Conneaut, Ohio, on Lake Erie with 2,900 tons of steel rails bound for the Great Northern Railway's Superior, Wis., terminal.

Its captain, 31-year-old John Eisenhardt of Milwaukee, worried in a letter to his sister that the vessel was overloaded, making it unstable, according to "Lake Superior Shipwrecks" by Julius F. Wolff. The trip was Eisenhardt's first as captain. It became his last.

As the vessel crossed Lake Superior, one of the worst spring storms ever to strike the big lake was gathering -- with winds of at least 64 miles per hour. From a distance, the captain of another vessel saw a smaller ship's lights disappear at about 3 a.m. By that afternoon, hatch covers, oars and other flotsam from the Noble were washing up on Minnesota Point in Duluth.

But the location of the Noble and its crew became "western Lake Superior's best-held secret," Wolff wrote.

Lake finally tells
Last Halloween, wreck hunters Jerry Eliason and Randy Beebe of Duluth, Ken Merryman of Fridley and Kraig Smith of Rice Lake, Wis., were scanning the bottom about 10 miles off the shore near Two Harbors.

They were looking for the Robert Wallace, a wooden steamer that went down in 1902. They thought the structure their side-scan sonar detected half-buried in the muddy bottom more than 300 feet down was the Wallace.

But when they lowered an underwater camera, they discovered a hull made of steel, not wood. Then they caught glimpses of the cargo: steel rails.

In western Lake Superior, only one missing steel vessel was loaded with rails when it went down: the Benjamin Noble. Eliason considered the Noble the Holy Grail or Loch Ness monster of wrecks, half history, half legend, a hidden crypt for 20 men.

Of the 350 vessels known to have sunk in Lake Superior, fewer than 50 remained unaccounted for, and because the Noble had no survivors, its fate was considered one of the most mysterious.
The data on how and where it went down were so vague, so conflicting that no wreck hunter had ever known just where to start. Now, huddled around a video screen in a lonely boat, the four hunters suddenly knew they were staring at something akin to a ghost.

"Holy goodness!" Eliason remembers saying, or perhaps something slightly less printable. After almost a century, the Noble was found.

Eliason said it sits in a deep furrow plowed by its own hull, evidence that it dove to the bottom rather than breaking up on the surface.

He said he thinks killer waves may have broadsided the vessel and driven it under when the captain was trying to turn around, to avoid a following sea. The witness who saw lights disappear said the vessel appeared to turn first, Eliason said.

Preservation sought
On Tuesday, Marshall said he couldn't be more thrilled, both to see the mystery of the Noble's location solved in his lifetime and by the wreck hunters' announcement that they would put the money toward an application to have the wreck declared a historic site, off-limits to private relic scavengers.

Until then, they said, the wreck's exact location and depth won't be widely disclosed. If any relics are taken off the wreck, they will be only for public display in the Canal Park Marine Museum, the discoverers said. They added that dives -- the first of which may occur this summer -- should be limited because the site is the grave of the Noble's crew.

A grave that can now finally be marked.

After witnessing Tuesday's presentation, Frederick Stonehouse, a prolific Great Lakes shipwreck author, said: "They've solved one of the great mysteries of the Great Lakes."


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