Treasure Ships of the Great Lakes

Diver explores the remains of an unidentified coal carrier in Georgian Bay, Tobermory, Lake Huron. Photo Credit: Bill Hughes.

Diver explores the remains of an unidentified coal carrier in Georgian Bay, Tobermory, Lake Huron. Photo Credit: Bill Hughes.

Jim Barrett of St. Paul, Minnesota, writes: “After researching the CITY OF BANGOR, sunk in Lake Superior in 1926—and how its cargo of new automobiles was salvaged—I’m wondering what other treasures have been recovered from the Great Lakes?” Although parts of Lakes Ontario, Huron and Superior are so deep that salvage has seldom been an option, Lakes Michigan and Erie have relinquished some valuable cargoes from their shallow depths.

While vessels laden with barley, wheat, rye and corn were unlikely candidates for salvage, iron ore, coal and whiskey were more desirable. Coal, usually shipped from Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky and West Virginia, was burned in the furnaces and smelters in the Lake Superior regions of Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. It was also the primary fuel used to heat most homes. Iron ore had less value, but its counterpart, pig iron, was a Great Lakes treasure.

Whaleback steamer SS METEOR, typical of the ships that carried coal on the Great Lakes. Photo Credit: Head of the Lakes Maritime Society.

Whaleback steamer SS METEOR, typical of the ships that carried coal on the Great Lakes. Photo Credit: Head of the Lakes Maritime Society.

Illegal cargoes were treasures too, such as the 1,000 cases of whiskey smuggled by the CITY OF DRESDEN during the days of Prohibition. In 1922, when the ship ran aground in Lake Erie during a November gale, salvors recovered what they could before law enforcement officers arrived.

When the steamer, LINDEN, went down in the St. Clair River in 1905, the Port Huron Wrecking Company used pontoons and cofferdams to salvage 1,000 tons of coal, and eventually raised the vessel.

In 1913, the HOWARD M. HANNA, JR. was transporting 9,000 tons of coal when it foundered on the rocks of Lake Huron. By the time the insurance company settled the lost cargo claim and hired a salvor, local residents had off-loaded most of the coal. It was reported that locals from Port Austin, Michigan, were still burning some of it 10 years later.

Great Lakes Map

Great Lakes Map

Not all of the lakes’ treasured coal was salvaged. In 1910, the steamer, LANGHAM, caught fire in Bete Grise Bay, Lake Superior, and sank with no losses except for a large cargo of coal. Neff Shipping Company from Milwaukee sent a tugboat and a barge hundreds of miles to the Northern Michigan wreck site, but fierce storms forced the crews to quit after a brief attempt at salvage.

Cargo vessels have sailed the Great Lakes for more than 300 years. While Caribbean divers were searching for gold doubloons from Spanish galleons, the fresh water salvors were searching for something more practical—resources used in home and industry. But no matter what they retrieved: new cars, whiskey, even crates of cheese, King Coal remained the most coveted prize of all.

About Ellsworth Boyd

Ellsworth Boyd, Professor Emeritus, College of Education, Towson University, Towson, Maryland, pursues an avocation of diving and writing. He has published articles and photo's in every major dive magazine in the US., Canada, and half a dozen foreign countries. An authority on shipwrecks, Ellsworth has received thousands of letters and e-mails from divers throughout the world who responded to his Wreck Facts column in Sport Diver Magazine. When he's not writing, or diving, Ellsworth appears as a featured speaker at maritime symposiums in Los Angeles, Houston, Chicago, Ft. Lauderdale, New York and Philadelphia. "Romance & Mystery: Sunken Treasures of the Lost Galleons," is one of his most popular talks.
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5 Responses to Treasure Ships of the Great Lakes

  1. Julie Rosd says:

    “I enjoyed “Treasure Ships of the Great Lakes.”Could you recommend an intermediate depth shipwreck dive in Lake Michigan? One that has an interesting history? Thank you.

  2. Ellsworth Boyd says:

    I recommend the Sandusky, wooden brig lost in 1848 in the staits of Mackinac, a narrow stretch of water connecting Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. The wreck rests upright and you can reach the deck at 70 feet and see the ram’s head figurehead just beneath the bowsprit. There’s also deadeyes, broken masts, a windlass, pumps, hatches and other sights. This area has many other shipwrecks in case this one doesn’t suit your needs.

  3. jon macvean says:

    are thereany more gold or silver bullion ships sunk in lake michigan have they all been foundyet thanks jon macvean

  4. Mark Richardson says:

    How about the Marquette and Bessemer #2 that is reportedly (according to current internet posts) still missing in Lake Erie? At 350 feet long, there’s only a few places in the entire lake that could hide this thing for 100 years.
    Given the known history of the ship’s end, it is almost certainly in the deep basin off Long Point, and probably covered with allot of silt and sand.
    One would think that a competent Navy crew on a P-3 Orion using magnetic anomaly detection could find this much iron in a day or less.

  5. david graham says:

    are there any treasure ships at the bottom of Lake Ontario–considering the War of 1812 and the many battles/ship sunk surrounding this you would think there would be British/American ships with payroll cargos etc at the bottom. The deepest part of Lake Ontario is not that far off Oswego/Sodus Point both areas where lake battles occurred

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