Researchers in Michigan have announced the discovery Wednesday of a “magnificently preserved” shipwreck hundreds of feet below the surface of Lake Huron whose location had “remained a mystery for over 120 years.”
The 191-foot cargo vessel Ironton — which sank following a collision in 1894 in an area called “Shipwreck Alley” – has been located within the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association.
Only two members of the ship’s seven-man crew survived the disaster by clinging onto floating wreckage in Lake Huron’s frigid waters. The other five sailors, including Ironton’s captain, died after getting into the vessel’s lifeboat, which the crew was unable to detach from the ship during the chaos.
An incredible new image released Wednesday eerily shows the lifeboat still attached to the Ironton at the bottom of the lake more than a century later.
“The discovery illustrates how we can use the past to create a better future,” Jeff Gray, Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary superintendent, said in a statement. “Using this cutting-edge technology, we have not only located a pristine shipwreck lost for over a century, we are also learning more about one of our nation’s most important natural resources — the Great Lakes. This research will help protect Lake Huron and its rich history.”
Researchers from the NOAA, the state of Michigan and the Ocean Exploration Trust nonprofit teamed up to discover the Ironton’s wreckage.
“Magnificently preserved by the cold freshwater of the Great Lakes for over a century, the 191-foot Ironton rests upright with its three masts still standing,” the NOAA said Wednesday in its announcement of the find.
Shortly after midnight on Sept. 26, 1894, the Ironton – a schooner barge that was being pulled by the Charles J. Kershaw steamer – had its tow line cut to avoid a potential collision after the leading ship’s engine failed.
“Ironton’s crew found themselves suddenly adrift in the dark and at the mercy of Lake Huron’s wind-blown seas,” the NOAA said. “Under the direction of Captain Peter Girard, they fought to regain control of the ship, firing up the vessel’s auxiliary steam engine to help set the struggling ship’s sails.”
But despite that effort, the Ironton came into the path of the Ohio, a steamer carrying 1,000 tons of grain.
“The two vessels separated after the impact, both fatally damaged. Ironton’s bow tore a 12-foot diameter hole into Ohio’s wooden hull,” the NOAA said. “Heavily laden with cargo, Ohio sank quickly, with all 16 crew escaping on lifeboats. Nearby ships rescued the sailors.”
The Ironton, meanwhile, drifted out of sight of the responding ships until it succumbed to its fate.
The NOAA says the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary and partners first found the Ohio in Lake Huron in 2017.
Two years later, its researchers went on a mapping expedition with the Ocean Exploration Trust – an organization founded by deep-sea explorer Robert Ballard, who discovered the wreck of the Titanic in 1985 — and discovered the Ironton.
“As the project came to its final days, the team had successfully mapped a large section of the search area, but Ironton remained undiscovered,” the NOAA said. “The researchers expanded the search area. Persistence and determination were rewarded when the sonar returned an image from the lakebed of an unmistakable shipwreck — and one that matched the description of Ironton.”
In 2021, the team returned to the site on a Coast Guard cutter “to collect high-resolution video and further document the wreck.”
Now the NOAA says it “intends to deploy a deep-water mooring buoy at the site of Ironton to mark the shipwreck’s location and help divers visit the wreck site safely.”
“The discovery of Ironton inspires us to keep exploring,” Gray said. “We will continue to map Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, and this research will ultimately lead to even more discoveries about the Great Lakes and the unique collection of shipwrecks that rest on the lakebed.”