Sunday, February 10, 2008

 

Park Point shipwreck identified as tug sunk 120 years ago

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Duluth News Tribune
By Will Ashenmacher
February 09, 2008


A year after its discovery, shipwreck buffs think they’ve identified “Sophie’s Wreck,” the remains of a wooden ship discovered last winter off Park Point.

But the chance to officially identify Sophie’s Wreck is slipping away as interest in it wanes and the wreck itself sinks deeper into the lake bottom.

Sophie’s Wreck was discovered about 150 feet offshore near the 2600 block of Minnesota Avenue last winter. People walking on the 10 inches of clear ice above the wreck first spotted it Feb. 18. It was dubbed “Sophie’s Wreck” in honor of one of the finders’ daughters.

Several people dove down to the wreck last winter and combed the area with cameras and metal detectors, looking for telltale signs of the ship’s identity, like serial numbers on equipment.

No such identifiers were found, but now, shipwreck historians think the wreck is the Amethyst, a harbor tug that was scuttled in 1888.

Jay Hanson, who dove to the wreck three times last winter, said the remains suggest Sophie’s Wreck was probably about 45 feet long, meaning it was likely a tug. The wreck’s engine and boiler are missing and the connecting rod is cleanly severed and not twisted or broken, indicating the missing items were removed for salvage before the ship was deliberately sunk — a not-uncommon fate for tugs that had outlived their usefulness or were beyond economically viable repair, according to Thom Holden, director of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Lake Superior Maritime Visitors Center.

That leads Hanson and others to think the wreck is the Amethyst, but they freely acknowledge it could be another tug whose demise was not recorded or whose documents have been lost.

Ken Merryman, a board member of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Preservation Society, said the size and salvage indications are all that point to Sophie’s Wreck being the Amethyst.

“We have no other clues other than that. It could be an unrecorded boat of some kind,” he said. “Right now, that’s just the best guess.”

The lack of a definite identifier poses a problem — a hunch doesn’t cut it when trying to get official recognition of a shipwreck, such as a listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

“We have to prove it’s the wreck we think it is to put it on the national historic register and, right now, all we have is the size,” Hanson said.

Hanson said he doesn’t know how it might be proven that Sophie’s Wreck is indeed the Amethyst.

“It might never be proven,” he said. “It might always be a mystery.”

The Great Lakes Shipwreck Preservation Society helps guide shipwrecks on to the National Register of Historic Places. Merryman, who oversees that aspect of the group’s work, said it takes on about one shipwreck per year and is booked up until 2009.

And since the research, exploration and documentation of a wreck costs about $1,000, the group doesn’t want to spend the money on what may be an anonymous harbor tug of little historical value.

“It’s probably lower on our list, let’s put it that way,” Merryman said of Sophie’s Wreck.

Society president Steve Daniel said other wrecks, such as the scow schooner Mayflower, which is sunk off the Lester River, have more to offer, historically speaking. The group is working to get The Moonlight, a schooner-barge that sunk in the Apostle Islands, on the register, for instance, because its wreck still holds china, lanterns, anchors and the original steering wheel.

“A lot of these ships, you don’t see that,” Daniel said. “It’s worth preserving as is.”

Sophie’s Wreck will make it into a diver’s guide Daniel will have published in May by the Minnesota Historical Society Press. Daniel said he spends about three pages discussing Sophie’s Wreck.

But Sophie’s Wreck lies in water that is too shallow for most boaters to enter, which makes it hard for people to visit. That leads Daniel to think it’s not going to become a heavily visited site.

“This one probably won’t make most charts,” he said.

On top of that, Sophie’s Wreck may already have sunk into the lake bottom. Steven Sola, one of the original discoverers, said he visited the site in June and all he could see were two blades of the propeller. Daniel said he visited the site in August and couldn’t see anything.


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