Imagine finding a ship, sitting fully intact on the bottom of a lake, as if the ship was built there. That is exactly what happened in 2019, when researchers from the marine sanctuary partnered with Ocean Exploration Trust, the group known for finding the Titanic in 1985, and embarked on a mapping expedition. The mission was sparked by the discovery of SS Ohio on the bottom of Lake Huron, in an area known as Shipwreck Alley. They knew that SS Ohio had gone down in the area following a collision with the schooner barge, Ironton, so it followed that if they had found SS Ohio, the Ironton must be nearby. Still, while they expected to find the wreck of the Ironton, what they actually found was…stunning!!
Ironton and SS Ohio, both sank in September 1894, following a collision that claimed the lives of five of the ship’s crew. The facts of the loss were only known because if the first-hand accounts of the wreck’s two survivors. Were it not for these survivors, the location might never have been known. Still, the wrecks sat on the lake floor for over a hundred years, waiting for a time in history when we had the technology and equipment necessary to actually go down and find the wrecks. What everyone who sailed the Great Lakes knows is that they are deep, and can be treacherous, especially in the winter…and “Shipwreck Alley” is an area of Lake Huron well known for its treacherous waters that have claimed the lives of many sailors.
On that fateful September day in 1894, the 190-foot steamer Charles J Kershaw departed Ashtabula, Ohio, on Lake Erie. She was towing the schooner barges Ironton and Moonlight. The vessels sailed empty, and they were destined for Marquette, Michigan, on Lake Superior. Things were going well, until at 12:30am on Sept. 26, while sailing north across Lake Huron under clear skies, Kershaw’s engine failed, leaving the ship without power. This was the beginning of disaster. They might have been ok, had it not been for the notorious winds in “Shipwreck Alley.” The Kershaw was a few miles north of the Presque Isle Lighthouse, when a strong south wind pushed Moonlight and Ironton toward the disabled steamer. The crew attempted to avoid the impending entanglement and a possible collision. Moonlight’s crew cut Ironton’s tow line, detaching the steamer from the schooner barges. Still, the winds were not letting up, and now the ship and the barges were at their mercy.
When Ironton was cut loose, the crew suddenly found themselves adrift in the dark fighting the wind and praying that they didn’t hit anything. They fought with all that was in them to regain control of the ship. Under the direction of Captain Peter Girard, they fired up the vessel’s auxiliary steam engine to help set the struggling ship’s sails, but even with their best efforts, Ironton, being propelled by the wind from astern, veered off course into the path of the southbound steamer Ohio. The Ohio, a 203-foot wooden freighter was enroute to Ogdensburg, New York, from Duluth, Minnesota, loaded with 1,000 tons of grain.
The night was dark, so by the time Ironton’s crew spotted the approaching Ohio through the darkness, it was too late to avoid a head-on collision with the steamer. William Wooley of Cleveland, Ohio, a surviving crew member of Ironton, said, “At this time we sighted a steamer on our starboard bow. She came up across our bow and we struck her on the quarter about aft of the boiler house. A light was lowered over our bow, and we saw a hole in our port bow and our stem splintered.”
SS Ohio was found upright in 2017, over 122 years after her sinking in over 200 feet of water off Presque Isle, Michigan. It was at this point that the search began for Ironton, which was expected to be nearby. In March, 2023, it was announced that Ironton had been located in 2019. The searchers waited to announce the finding, while they explored the vessel, hoping to discover how she could be in such pristine condition. The cold freshwater of the lake has kept the Ironton intact. According to Michigan Radio’s Jodi Westrick, an anchor is still connected to the ship, as are its three masts. In addition, a lifeboat remains tied to the vessel, a chilling reminder of how the ship’s demise played out on a harrowing night in 1894. It is as if time stood still for 1894 to the present day. Amazing!!