Wreck found along 'outlandishly' remote stretch of Lake Superior shore
His ship sunk, his belongings gone but for the clothes on his back, L.S. Upson surveyed the scene along the remote shore of Lake Superior 100 miles north of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.
Upson was one of about 60 passengers and crew who survived the sinking of the packet steamer J.S. Seaverns near Michipicoten Harbor in May 1884.
It had been a harrowing experience for the survivors — "it was a fine night or all (would) have been lost," Upson noted in a letter home that was later reprinted in the Chicago Inter Ocean newspaper.
But while they may have been glad to be alive, the passengers and crew must have lamented their lot, with their possessions and supplies now on the bottom of the lake — and a wait of indeterminate length until they all could be picked up from the isolated outpost.
"This," Upson wrote of his surroundings, "is the most outlandish out-of-a-way place in the world."
A group of shipwreck hunters with ties to the Northland met earlier this year along that "outlandish" stretch of shore, in search of the lost Seaverns.
Using historical accounts and old charts to guide them, they located the wreck in relatively short order using sonar. On further exploration the five-man team found the Seaverns to be "in beautiful shape," said Dan Fountain of Negaunee, Mich., who led the way in researching the wreck.
Parts of the ship are "amazingly intact," said Ken Merryman of the Twin Cities, who made dives on the wreck.
Fountain and Merryman will give a presentation on the Seaverns, talking about the history of the ship and the state of the wreck, at the annual Gales of November conference that takes place Friday and Saturday in Duluth.
The wreck of the Seaverns
Even today, the eastern shore of Lake Superior can be a desolate and unforgiving one for mariners.
Once you head north from Sault Ste. Marie, there are only a few settlements — and few harbors of any kind — which carry names that seem to fit the rugged surroundings. Names like Gargantua Harbor, and to the north of that Michipicoten Harbor.
It was to the latter that the J.S. Seaverns made its way in May 1884. In an area where members of the Michipicoten First Nation had resided for centuries, the harbor was being used as a supply point for the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway.
"At the time there was just a very small port there, just a dock and a warehouse," said Fountain.
The 130-foot ship had been built just four years earlier, at Saugatuck, Mich., using the keel from the 1857 ship John P. Ward. For the first few years of its life the Seaverns spent time carrying fruit from Michigan to Chicago, Fountain said. By the spring of 1884 it had been sold to a new owner who added cabins and put it into service hauling freight along the eastern and northern shores of Lake Superior, servicing lumber camps and the railroad construction work en route to Port Arthur and Fort William (today's Thunder Bay).
The Seaverns left Chicago in May carrying a wide assortment of cargo for Michipicoten and several later ports of call — food, supplies, equipment for a planing mill — along with about 15 crew members and 45 passengers. By the time it had finished unloading goods at Michipicoten, it was late on a calm night.
"In backing out we struck a rock, putting a hole in her," wrote mate James Campbell in a letter that, like Upson's, was reprinted in the Chicago Inter Ocean newspaper later that month. The ship apparently made a run for a beach, "a distance of about seven miles across the bay, and when halfway across she sunk. We had a hard time in getting out. ... We had to fight to get to the boats."
All aboard made it to shore in the lifeboats. As for why the ship hit the rock, at least one theory pinned blame on an inexperienced captain.
"It is claimed that her master knew nothing of the north shore of Lake Superior. This north shore ... has never been surveyed and there are no charts to aid navigators, there are no buoys, and there are but four lights. It is insisted that no man not well acquainted on this dangerous coast should be given charge of any craft going there," the Chicago Times reported several weeks after the wreck, in a story located by Fountain.
The Seaverns and its cargo were estimated at the time to be worth $30,000 to $50,000 — that would be several hundred thousand dollars today.
There was talk of salvaging the ship and its cargo in the months and years that followed, but it appears that none of those efforts had any success. They did help get the wreck marked on some charts in the years after the ship sank, only to be forgotten later.
Finding the wreck
About 10 or 15 years ago, Fountain said, he "was looking through some very old charts ... and here's a chart that showed (the Michipicoten) area, and it had a little note on it and a wreck symbol."
The wreck on the chart, though, was spelled "Saffern" — something Fountain wasn't familiar with. It was a dead end.
A few years later he came across a reference to the wrecked Seaverns, and made the connection: The Saffern and the Seaverns were the same ship.
He continued to research the ship; years went by. Its remote location made searching for it a challenge. But this summer, Merryman went on a circumnavigation of Lake Superior in his boat Heyboy. When he reached Michipicoten Harbor, he was joined by Fountain, Jerry Eliason of Scanlon, Kraig Smith of Rice Lake, Wis., and Nick Lintgen of New Hope, Minn., to search for the Seaverns on July 28.
The ship wasn't exactly where he thought it would be, Fountain said — but it was close enough that it took less than a half-day of sonar searching to locate it, a few miles out from the harbor.
Eliason noted that a "typical" wreck, say one that can be narrowed down to a 100-square-mile area, might take 15 days of searching with sonar to find — with those 15 days sometimes spread across several years.
After finding the Seaverns on sonar, the team dropped a camera to the wreck, and Merryman and Lintgen also made dives to further explore the ship.
The video footage and photos show that the Seaverns "is quite intact," Fountain said. "The upper cabins are somewhat broken up ... (but) the hull itself seems to be totally intact ... the hole in the bottom, that's not evident. The anchors are still sitting on deck ... the ship's helm wheel is leaning up against the starboard side of the wreck."
The lower cabins are intact, Merryman said — with some containing a couple bunks, and a corner stand for a wash basin.
There's evidence that the Seaverns wasn't just a utilitarian workhorse; elements of refinement are still visible, such as curved corners in the cabins, a stairwell banister with turned spindles, and the remains of a heating stove that — though deteriorated — still retains decorative elements.
"As you're descending the anchor line to get to it, it's just kind of the unknown. And then you get there, and it was in such great condition ... (it's) just kind of general awe, initially seeing it," Lintgen said of the ship.
Merryman noted that the Seaverns wasn't a bulk freighter like so many wrecks on Lake Superior. "This one is a little coastal steamer, package freight," he said — a random mix of items rather than a single cargo of coal or iron ore.
The divers found an assortment of dishes, some still stacked in cupboards; the planing mill equipment partially crated up; big slabs of some indeterminate material — a kind of meat? Animal hides? — that after years underwater had taken on the appearance of whale blubber, Merryman said.
"There's all kinds of interesting stuff ... just looking at it and trying to figure out, 'what is that?,' " Eliason said.
All of it untouched by human hands since the ship sank 132 years ago.
"That was really cool, to see everything completely as it was when the ship went down," Lintgen said.
"It was never on anybody's radar, probably because it's in such a remote area," he said.
For now, the group has no plans to revisit the Seaverns, in part because of the challenge of getting a boat and diving equipment to that location.
They will be able to spend the winter reviewing the video footage and photos they shot, to gain more insights on the wreck.
"Any shipwreck you (dive), it's always new to you," Lintgen said. "Being that it's new to everybody just adds a whole other level to it."