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Atlanta wreck identified in cold Lake Superior

Atlanta
Scan of the Atlanta (GLSHS / Marine Sonic Technology)

Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance was not the only ship to be found at chilly depths and identified through a well-preserved nameplate recently. A wreck located in cold Lake Superior in Michigan, USA, has just been ID’d as the late-19th-century schooner-barge Atlanta

The 52m vessel had been carrying a cargo of coal with sails lowered under tow by the steamer Wilhelm on 4 May, 1891 when gale conditions caused the towline to snap.

Also read: Anchor & chest found at Chinese shipwreck site

Without sails the Atlanta, which had been built only the previous year, was at the mercy of the storm. All three masts snapped off at their bases, and the crew of seven, including a female cook, abandoned ship. 

After several hours their lifeboat reached the Crisp Point lighthouse and life-saving station, but it overturned in heavy breakers while attempting to land, and only two men could be saved from the waves.

The Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society (GLSHS) located the wreck 56km off Superior’s south-eastern shore at a depth of around 200m. It had found a number of marks while mapping more than 2,500 miles of the lake last summer using Marine Sonic Technology side-scan sonar, and these included what footage from an ROV dive has now confirmed to be the Atlanta.

Atlanta
Ornate nameboard (GLSHS)
Atlanta
Toilet bowls (GLSHS)
Atlanta
Pump (GLSHS)

The video showed that all three masts had indeed broken off flush with the deck and were not to be seen in the vicinity of the wreck. Features of the ship including its half-buried wheel, a toilet, a pump and the name-board were still clearly visible.

“It is rare that we find a shipwreck that so clearly announces what it is, and the name-board of the Atlanta really stands out,” said GLSHS executive director Bruce Lynn. The name had been written in gold, with decorative scrollwork. “It is truly ornate, and still beautiful after 130 years on the bottom of Lake Superior.” 

Atlanta
Ship’s wheel half-buried in silt (GLSHS)
Atlanta
Capstan (GLSHS)
Atlanta
The bow (GLSHS)

“We discovered nine shipwrecks last summer – not all have been released yet but we also have 19 targets to go back and look at that could be shipwrecks,” GLSHS director of marine operations Darryl Ertel told Divernet. “All of these are way outside sport diving, even technical diving, limits.” Ertel is one of the society’s technical instructors, teaching mixed-gas rebreather diving to 90m.

“In 2007 and 2008 we found 14 shipwrecks in less than 8m of water at Whitefish Point, and produced two DVDs about them,” he said, recommending that for any scuba diver interested in exploring Lake Superior’s diveable wrecks, 30 are listed on the Whitefish Point Underwater Preserve website. Whitefish Point is just over 20km from Crisp Point.

Shipwrecks might be well-preserved by the lake’s cold waters, but those waters also threaten the lives of those unfortunate enough to fall into them. 

Shortly after the GLSHS announced its discovery of the Atlanta, members searching US Life-Saving Service records came across a letter written two days after the sinking. It was signed by Eli Wait, one of the two surviving sailors, with the signature of the other man, John Pickel, appended.

Atlanta
No photographs of Atlanta remain but this is sister-ship Nirvana (GLSHS)

Wait reports being saved “at the point of death” by lighthouse-keeper Captain Small at Crisp Point. Numb with cold, “in 10 seconds more I would have been lost, for the undertow was taking me out when the keeper ran out into the lake and pulled me ashore.

“It was impossible to save those who were lost; they were so benumbed with the cold that they could not hang on until the life-savers could get to them,” wrote Wait. 

“I cannot express by pen my thankfulness for the kindness we received from the captain and the crew, for we can safely say that we are indebted to them for our lives.”

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