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130 years after it sank, well-preserved wreckage of ship found in Lake Superior

At 650 feet deep, the wreck isn't accessible to divers.

nameboard of the schooner-barge Atlanta
The nameboard of the schooner-barge Atlanta, which sank in Lake Superior in May 1891 and was discovered in 2021. The Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society announced the discovery on Thursday, March 3, 2022.
Courtesy Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society
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More than 130 years after it sank in a spring gale, shipwreck hunters have found a nearly perfectly preserved vessel lying 650 feet beneath the surface of Lake Superior.

The Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society announced Thursday that the wreck of the Atlantaa three-masted schooner-barge, was located — first by sonar last year. Video from a remote-operated vehicle then confirmed the find in eastern Lake Superior, offshore from Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

Corey Adkins, a spokesperson for the society, said the gold letters of the ship's name, alongside ornate scrolling, emerged out of the dark as the ROV approached the wreck.

"When you see that blip on the radar, after hours and hours of finding nothing — you see that blip on the radar, and it's very exciting. And then when we put our ROV down on this wreck, and see that beautiful nameboard, Atlanta. You know, that's a great feeling," he said.

"You can still see all the wood, you can see the toilet seats, you can see the pumps, you can see the masts broken off on the Atlanta, you can see the wheel sticking out of the sand — it's something else to see these time capsules."

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The-Atlanta-Shipwreck-Wheel
The wheel of the schooner-barge Atlanta, which sank in Lake Superior in May 1891, emerges from the bottom of the lake more than 650 feet beneath the surface.
Courtesy Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society

The wreck of the Atlanta

The Atlanta was a 172-foot, "virtually new" ship as it traveled westward in tow of the steamer Wilhelm on May 3, 1891, author and longtime University of Minnesota Duluth professor Julius Wolff wrote in his book “Lake Superior Shipwrecks.”

The two vessels were offshore from Deer Park, Mich., when the northwest wind picked up.

"For four hours the Wilhelm bucked the seas, getting nowhere. The Wilhelm's captain decided to return to Whitefish Point for shelter, but the tow-line snapped and the Atlanta was on her own," Wolff wrote.

The-Atlanta-Shipwreck-Broken-Mast
A broken-off mast is seen on the wreck of the schooner-barge Atlanta, which sank in Lake Superior in May 1891.
Courtesy Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society

Wolff, citing accounts of survivors, wrote that efforts to raise the Atlanta's sails were unsuccessful and the ship started leaking. After battling all night and into the next morning, the captain ordered the crew into the lifeboat.

The lifeboat capsized as it approached the shore near the Crisp Point Life-Saving Station on the afternoon of May 4, and five of the seven crew drowned.

Reports from the time, Wolff wrote, were that a lookout at the station had mistook the lifeboat for a large log — delaying the response of rescue crews who might have saved more lives.

wreck of the schooner-barge Atlanta
A sonar image of the wreck of the schooner-barge Atlanta, which sank in Lake Superior in May 1891 and was discovered in 2021 by the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society.
Courtesy Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society

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More wrecks found

Adkins said Darryl Ertel, director of marine operations for the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society, was "mowing the lawn" with sonar on Lake Superior last year — going back and forth in a grid pattern, searching for potential wrecks on the lake bottom — when he located what was later confirmed as the Atlanta.

Adkins said at 650 feet deep, the wreck isn't accessible to divers. For now, he said, pictures and video of the wreck will be used to share its history.

And he said the society's sonar search efforts turned up a total of 10 wrecks last year — including five more that have not yet been identified, after time ran out last season. They'll be revisited this year.

"Every single one of these wrecks are just, you know — they're just amazingly beautifully preserved on the bottom," he said.

The-Atlanta-Shipwreck-Capstan-1440x900.jpg
The capstan of the schooner-barge Atlanta.
Courtesy Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society

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