For Lake Superior wreck hunters, discovery of historic tugboat was serendipity (with video)A pair of Lake Superior shipwreck hunters got slightly lost earlier this year while out on the water. But, oh, what they found.
By: Andrew Krueger, Duluth News Tribune
A pair of Lake Superior shipwreck hunters got slightly lost earlier this year while out on the water. But, oh, what they found.
David Shepherd and Rob Valley, who live in Thunder Bay,
Ontario, say they made an unplanned discovery of a sunken vessel that all evidence suggests is a tugboat called the Mary Ann, scuttled more than 75 years ago. It’s a boat perhaps somewhat unremarkable if not for the fact that in 1867 it became the first vessel registered in the then-new Dominion of Canada.
“It took our breath away,” Shepherd said of the realization of what they found. “It was overwhelming, the significance of it. It’s not just a scuttled boat. It’s the first ship (registered) in Canada that wasn’t a naval vessel.”
And it was a discovery that wouldn’t have happened if not for a slight mistake. Shepherd and Valley went out on Lake Superior in early July to calibrate their sonar gear on a known wreck near the Welcome Islands, about five miles offshore from the city of Thunder Bay. They thought they’d be testing their gear on a wreck called the Grey Oak.
“We wanted to see what a certain-sized ship looked like on our equipment,” Shepherd said.
Shepherd and Valley didn’t know it at the time, but they were off on some of the landmarks used to locate the Grey Oak. They started up their sonar and quickly located a sunken vessel. Only it was not the Grey Oak.
That realization came a few weeks later when the duo decided to return to the ship, which was supposed to rest at a depth of 90-110 feet; they hadn’t checked the depth on sonar on that initial visit. After entering the water, Shepherd recalled, “within 55 feet, (I) see a shipwreck. … That’s when the alarm bells went off, that this isn’t supposed to be here. That’s when we realized we’ve got a brand-new shipwreck.”
“When (Shepherd) came back up, it was like he’d seen a ghost,” Valley said. “He said, ‘This is not the ship. We’ve found a new one.’ ”
Parts of the main cabin and bridge were gone, but there were cabins and artifacts at the vessel’s stern — bunks, cabinets, cans and bottles, some wood debris. The ship rests in between 55 and 70 feet of water.
With video footage and notes in hand, Shepherd and Valley started researching the sunken ship. They consulted with local diving and wreck experts including Ryan LeBlanc of Thunder Bay. They made return visits to the ship to collect more video and measurements.
What they found — the ship’s size, construction materials, the lines of its bow and keel, the configuration of the scuppers used to clear water from the deck — all matches up with the Mary Ann.
“The evidence is all pointing to it being the Mary Ann,” Shepherd said. “Looking at all the available information, it matches.”
The 78-foot tug’s full name is Mary Ann of Dunnville — Dunnville being a community in southern Ontario near Lake Erie, where the tug was built. According to the 1997 book “The Welland Canals and Their Communities” by John N. Jackson, the Mary Ann’s first owner was a successful businessman named Lachlan McCallum, and it was the first ship registered in Canada after the nation was formed in 1867.
McCallum was a senator in Ontario, and a history of the ship printed in the Port Arthur (Ontario) News-Chronicle in 1944 reported that Mary Ann was the name of one of his daughters. Port Arthur later combined with Fort William to form the present-day city of Thunder Bay, often referred to as the Lakehead.
“It was at the Lakehead … where the Mary Ann spent most of her long life” after being acquired by new owners and brought to Port Arthur in the early 1880s, the 1944 article reported.
The tug also served as an excursion boat, with an awning over the afterdeck and with a brass band aboard on at least one occasion.
“It is on record also that the Mary Ann was chartered to carry fish from Port Arthur to Duluth after the regular closing of the navigation season,” the 1944 article reported.
The Mary Ann later was converted to a barge, Valley and Shepherd found in their research. After a few more years of service, it was abandoned and allowed to sink at a dock.
It was long thought that the Mary Ann was one of nearly three dozen derelict vessels hauled away from docks in 1936 and scuttled in hundreds of feet of water far out in Thunder Bay, in what became known as the “Graveyard of Ships.”
But the recent discovery puts the Mary Ann about 10 miles away from the “graveyard.”
“That the biggest mystery,” Shepherd said. “Obviously they dropped a ship far away from where it was supposed to be.”
Shepherd and Valley want to help ensure the Mary Ann and its artifacts are protected by forming a local chapter of the Ontario Underwater Council, a group that aims to promote scuba diving and protect underwater resources.
“There are some artifacts on it that we’d like to see stay there,” Valley said.
The pair also want to return to the Mary Ann next season to keep surveying the wreck and better document what’s there.
“We’re looking at the video and drawing up plans,” Shepherd said.
And there are other wrecks they’re searching for in Thunder Bay and along Ontario’s rocky north shore of Lake Superior. This winter, though, they’ll be reflecting on their luck in finding a humble tug with a unique place in history.
“To find (a wreck) is a feat in itself. To screw up and find another one is incredible,” Shepherd said. “I went out and bought a lottery ticket.”