Sunday, November 13, 2005


Lake Superior wreck hunters explore watery grave

By Chuck Frederick
November 10, 2005

During 13 years of scouring Lake Superior and finding nothing but bottom, Jerry Eliason took occasional ribbing from co-workers at the driver exam station in West Duluth.

The ribbing continued this summer, but now because of a sudden abundance of good fortune. During the past two years, Eliason and a team of shipwreck hunters found or helped to find six shipwrecks, including three this summer.

"Now they're saying, 'You guys don't need sonar. You could go out with a Rapala and find one,' " said Eliason, assistant regional supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. "I think we were just unlucky those13 years. Things have turned around."

The new discoveries mean the annual Gales of November conference, scheduled for Friday and Saturday in Duluth, will be abuzz not only with talk of the 30th anniversary of the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald, but with tales of ghost ships and long-lost vessels.

"Anything new that solves a mystery is always a highlight," said Elmer Engman, a Duluth diver who organized the first Gales of November conference 18 years ago. "I'm looking forward to hearing more. These guys have spent a lot of time out there looking.

"There are a lot of mysteries," said Engman, owner of Innerspace Scuba in Lincoln Park/West End. "It's always of interest to see what's new."

The first wreck found this year was spotted on sonar by the Blue Heron, a research vessel operated by the University of Minnesota Duluth. Its crew contacted members of Eliason's team, who were diving one of the three wrecks they discovered last year.

In June, the shipwreck hunters lowered cameras in about 650 feet of water about three miles south of Two Harbors. They videotaped a wreck identified as the Harriet B. The wooden barge, built in 1895, sank on a foggy morning in 1922 after being rammed by a steamer. The barge took 20 minutes to go down, according to Julius Wolff's "Lake Superior Shipwrecks," published in 1979. The captain and crew were able to abandon ship and scramble to safety aboard the steamer that had hit them.

"I believe the Harriet B. is the deepest wreck ever found in the Great Lakes. Nobody I've ever talked to knows of anything deeper," Eliason said. "It's in excellent, excellent condition. It's wonderfully intact, that's for sure."

Most divers probably won't attempt to reach it, however. To safely dive at the depth of the Harriet B., even for 10 minutes on the wreck, requires eight hours total, Eliason said.

After the Harriet B., Eliason and other teammates discovered the Theano, one of only a few saltwater vessels ever to sink in Lake Superior.

The Dutch-made ship sank in November 1906 in a windy snowstorm that blew it off course and swung it broadside against a rocky shore not far from Thunder Bay, Ontario. The steel steamer's 20-man crew remained on board two hours trying to save the craft. With water pouring in faster than they could pump it out, the crew members finally boarded lifeboats. Moments later, according to Wolff's text, "icy waters touched her red-hot boilers and she blew up, sliding off the ledge (and) into the depths."

The shipwreck hunters first looked for the Theano in 1981, diving and swimming along a reef near Silver Islet and near the famous Sleeping Giant land formation. They found a propeller, believing it belonged to the Theano and leading them to believe the ship had slipped along the reef and 500 feet to the bottom of the lake.

In September 2001, they dropped cameras there but didn't find the wreck. They assumed the Theano had broken free of the reef and drifted away. This year, on Sept. 16, they reviewed old sonar data and noted a target previously dismissed. They decided to give it another look.

"We dropped the camera and there it was," Eliason said. "The forward section is somewhat broken up. It went down bow-first in more than 200 feet of water. We came home feeling pretty doggone good. To finally see it was great. We saw some neat stuff down there, all of it identical to pictures we have of the ship."

Less than a month after finding the Theano, the hunters discovered the Marquette off Michigan Island in the Apostle Islands. The wooden steamer sank in October 1903 after it began to take on water in a calm sea.

The ship, loaded with 2,000 tons of iron ore, sank head-first, popping off its hatch covers and twisting and breaking, according to Wolff and according to James M. Keller's "The 'Unholy' Apostles: Shipwreck Tales of the Apostle Islands," published in 1984. Its crew was able to escape in lifeboats.

Eliason and his team made one trip a year in search of the Marquette, beginning in 1991, he said. This year, their search included an overnight on the lake.

"We'll find it tomorrow," team member Kraig Smith said before bedtime, his prediction uncharacteristically bold. He chose a search area for the next day, and, while motoring out to it, spotted on a fish finder what looked like a nail sticking up from the bottom.

"We didn't even get a chance to use our side-scan sonar," Eliason said. "We were lucky enough to drive by it. He had that gut feeling.

"It's in excellent shape. It's as nice a bow as I've ever seen on a wood steamer," he said. "We don't see the name on it, but it's clearly a wood steamer and, part-for-part, the bow is exactly like the pictures."

His bold prediction was just one of those things you say to keep you motivated, said Smith, an accountant and business manager from Rice Lake, Wis.

"This one just happened to work out," he said. "But you're always successful just by going. If you find something, that's great. If not, you have a reason to go back."

The shipwreck hunters will be back next year, even if it means a little ribbing at work.

"We keep thinking of those 13 years when we were questioning our sanity," Eliason said. "Now it all seems more than worthwhile. Definitely worthwhile."


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