Century-old sunken freighter found 800 feet deep in Lake Superior

The Huronton was travelling in heavy fog and smoke from forest fires when it collided with another vessel on October 11, 1923

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One hundred years after the steel bulk freighter Huronton collided with another ship and sank to the bottom of Lake Superior, the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society (GLSHS) has announced its rediscovery.

In a news release, the GLSHS said that the 238-foot (72-metre) vessel was empty and travelling through heavy fog and smoke from forest fires on Oct. 11, 1923, when it collided with another ship.

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The other vessel was the bulk freighter Cetus, 416 feet (127 metres) long and fully loaded. The bow of the larger ship tore a hole in the port side of the Huronton, but the captain of the Cetus had the presence of mind to keep driving his ship forward. This kept the hole plugged long enough for the Huronton’s 17 crew to board the Cetus, which was damaged but seaworthy.

“Had the Cetus pulled away from our boat as soon as the collision occurred, we would never have had time to lower our life boats,” Huronton’s captain, Webb Beatty, told reporters at the time, adding: “Despite the fact that food was low on the Cetus, all my men were given meals. When we were last served breakfast today, the last of the grub was used.”

The last man off the ship was the first mate, Dick Simpell, who jumped back on board to rescue the crew’s mascot, a bulldog, which was tied up in the stern. Minutes later, the Huronton sank in 800 feet (244 metres) of water.

That was the last anyone saw of the ship until almost 100 years later. In August, the GLSHS was performing one of its regular shipwreck searches, towing a small submersible remotely operated vehicle (ROV) equipped with cameras, sonar and lights.

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“The depth dropped on us from 300 feet to 800 feet,”said GLSHS director of marine operations Darryl Ertel. “It was just a small 800-foot hole and there was a little sliver in there that was a straight line, but it looked like the size of a thread. And because it was a straight line, I marked it as a possible target. Four hours later, we come back on our way home to check it. And sure enough, it was a shipwreck.” (They waited two months for the centenary of the sinking to announce their find.)

Huronton sonar
A sonar image shows the Huronton in 800 feet of water. Photo by Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society

“Finding any shipwreck is exciting,” said GLSHS executive director Bruce Lynn. “But to think that we’re the first human eyes to look at this vessel 100 years after it sank, not many people have the opportunity to do that.”

He added: “I think about some of the more interesting aspects of what we do as an organization, but the searching for, discovery and documentation of shipwrecks … especially if it’s a vessel that sank a hundred years ago, is pretty exciting because it’s truly a part of our past.”

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The Huronton was a Canada-based vessel that was built in Lorain, Ohio, in 1898 and was with the Matthews Steamship Co., when it sank, according to records provided by the historical society.

Huronton smokestack
The smokestack of the Huronton, with an inquisitive fish. Photo by Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society

The ship sank near Whitefish Point on the eastern end of Lake Superior, only about five kilometres from where, in 1975, the Edmund Fitzgerald, immortalized in song by Gordon Lightfoot, would also go down. There are no plans to bring up the ship or any objects from it.

“The prime directive is, we don’t touch these things,” Lynn told the New York Times. “We create a snapshot in time of that shipwreck.” He added: “And anything in Michigan waters becomes property of the state of Michigan. We would have to apply and have a very good reason to pull something up off a wreck.”

There are an estimated 6,000 shipwrecks scattered throughout the Great Lakes, with some 550 in Lake Superior. Many others remain undiscovered.

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