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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Doomed vessel and its unused lifeboat are discovered at the bottom of Lake Huron

In an undated image provided by Ocean Exploration Trust/NOAA Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, a point cloud extracted from water column returns from multibeam sonar shows the Ironton, which sank in 1894 after colliding with another ship in Lake Huron, as it sits on the lake floor.

By Michael Levenson

When a 772-ton wooden schooner barge named Ironton collided with a wooden freighter loaded with 1,000 tons of grain and sank in Lake Huron on Sept. 26, 1894, its seven-man crew tried to escape on a lifeboat.

But no one untied the rope that secured the lifeboat to Ironton. Five crew members died.

More than 120 years later, when researchers discovered Ironton, magnificently preserved in the cold water at the bottom of Lake Huron, hundreds of feet below the surface, they also found that doomed lifeboat, still lashed to Ironton’s stern.

Ironton was located in 2019, but the discovery was not revealed to the public until Wednesday to allow researchers time to study and document the wreck, said Jeff Gray, the superintendent of the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, which discovered Ironton along with a group of partners.

The marine sanctuary, based in Alpena, Michigan, said it planned to develop educational materials to tell the story of Ironton and its foundering in “Shipwreck Alley,” an area of Lake Huron known for treacherous waters, where many sailors died.

“That lifeboat is the most chilling part of it because, had that lifeboat been deployed, there might not have been as many lives lost,” Gray said in an interview Wednesday. “It’s a good reminder of the dangers on the lake then and still today.”

Built in 1873, Ironton was typical of the floating workhorses that plied the waters of the Great Lakes, transporting the corn, wheat, coal, lumber and iron ore that helped build the Midwest.

The 191-foot vessel, capable of carrying more than 48,500 bushels of grain or 1,250 tons of coal, traveled steadily for two decades between ports such as Buffalo, New York, and Cleveland.

It sank after it collided with a 203-foot wooden freighter named Ohio that was heavily loaded with grain. Ohio, with a 12-foot hole in its hull, sank quickly in rough waters. But all 16 of its crew members escaped on lifeboats and were rescued by nearby ships.

Ironton, with a hole in its bow, drifted for more than an hour in the darkness, out of sight of the responding vessels, before slipping beneath the waves. The captain, Peter Girard; the mate, Ed Bostwick; a sailor, John Pope; and two other unidentified sailors died.

One of the two surviving crew members, William W. Parry of East China, Michigan, said in an interview printed in The Duluth News Tribune on Sept. 27, 1894, that the rope on the lifeboat had not been untied.

Parry said he had survived by grabbing on to a sailor’s bag and that another crewman, William Wooley of Cleveland, had held on to a floating box. Both men were rescued by a passing steamer.

The wreck of Ohio was discovered in 2017, in about 300 feet of water. But even though witnesses and contemporaneous accounts described where Ironton went down, its exact location remained a mystery for more than 120 years, the marine sanctuary said.

In 2019, researchers from the sanctuary set out on a mapping expedition in Lake Huron with Ocean Exploration Trust, a group founded by explorer Robert Ballard, best known for having discovered the Titanic in 1985.

Sonar images from the expedition revealed that a vessel resting on the lake bed appeared to be Ironton. Researchers returned in late 2019 and captured underwater video that confirmed that it was Ironton, with its rigging still attached, its three masts still upright and an anchor resting on its stern.

The sanctuary, which is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and oversees about 100 wrecks in Lake Huron, is exploring whether to mark the wreck of Ironton with a buoy, Gray said. That would allow divers to explore the sunken vessel and would protect it from damage from dropped anchors.

“It is hard to call it a shipwreck,” Gray said. “It’s a ship, sitting on the bottom, fully intact, and the lifeboat there, literally, is a moment frozen in time.”

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