100 years after ore boat disappeared in Lake Superior storm, searchers locate wreck
Just a few months shy of 100 years after it sank with all hands in a monstrous November storm, it appears that the freighter Henry B. Smith -- one of the most sought-after lost wrecks of Lake Superior -- has been found.
A group of shipwreck hunters with Northland ties has found a previously undiscovered wreck sitting largely intact amid a spilled load of iron ore in about 535 feet of water offshore from Marquette, Mich., and all evidence points to it being the Smith. Until last month, the 525-foot vessel had not been seen since it and its crew of 25 inadvertently sailed into the brunt of the Great Lakes Storm of 1913.
"It's the most satisfying find of my shipwreck-hunting career," said Jerry Eliason of Cloquet, part of the group that has located a number of lost ships in recent years, though perhaps none as significant as the Smith.
"It's a fantastic find," said maritime historian Frederick Stonehouse of Marquette, who has written about the long-lost ship. "I'm excited at the opportunity to look at the video and see if we can learn the cause of the wreck, to write the final chapter of the ship."
The Henry B. Smith was launched in 1906; its christening in Lorain, Ohio, on May 2 was reported in the next day's Duluth News Tribune.
By 1913, "she had the reputation of being one of the staunchest steel ships on the lakes, and relatively new," Stonehouse said.
That November brought one of the biggest storms recorded on the Great Lakes -- one that would end up being by far the most destructive in terms of ships and lives lost, Stonehouse said. More than a dozen ships sank, and about 250 sailors died.
But as the storm picked up steam on Nov. 7 and 8, the Henry B. Smith was safe in the harbor at Marquette, taking on a load of iron ore. On the evening of Nov. 9, with loading complete, Captain James Owen decided to leave port, bound for Cleveland -- even as other ships remained in the safety of the harbor.
"The lake was still rolling, but there seemed to be a lull in the wind, the velocity having dropped to 32 mph," Duluth native, shipwreck expert and longtime University of Minnesota Duluth professor Julius Wolff wrote in "Lake Superior Shipwrecks." "The gale already had hit the Soo with winds more than 50 mph for 36 hours and should have blown itself out. But, this was no conventional storm. In taking his vessel out of the safety of Marquette Harbor, Captain James Owen sailed into eternity."
Sailors on other boats reported seeing deckhands on the Smith still battening down hatches as it went onto the open lake, Stonehouse recounts in his book "Went Missing." Other witnesses watched the ship make a turn to port, as if Captain Owen had found the storm too strong and decided to head for the lee of the Keweenaw Peninsula.
Then the Smith and its crew of 25 vanished into the maelstrom, and entered Great Lakes lore as a "ghost ship."
With many other ships sunk or in peril, and communications still primitive by today's standards, it was several days before the Smith's absence drew widespread concern.
Unidentified wreckage started washing ashore in the Marquette area, Stonehouse writes in "Went Missing," and on Nov. 14 a local man reported finding an oar marked "Henry B. Smith" and other debris along the beaches east of Marquette. Over the following days, more debris traced to the Smith turned up farther east, toward Munising.
Then on Nov. 21, a passing steamer recovered the body of the Smith's second cook wearing a life belt, 50 miles west of Whitefish Point. It was one of only two bodies recovered of the crew of 25, Stonehouse reports. The second, that of the ship's third engineer, was found on Michipicoten Island the following May.
In June 1914, papers around Lake Superior -- including the News Tribune -- carried news of a sensational find: A message in a bottle, purportedly from the lost Smith, describing the ship breaking in two 12 miles east of Marquette.
"However, as the note was dated November 12 and the Smith had sailed on the 9th, presumably sinking that night, the authenticity of the find was doubted," Wolff wrote.
Lake Superior would reveal no more clues to the ship's fate.
So how did the hunters find the Henry B. Smith with few clues amid the vast waters of Lake Superior?
Eliason is cagey about that, because he hopes to locate other lost wrecks using the same method and doesn't want to tip his hand just yet. But it wasn't a case of just taking a sonar unit out on the lake and spending days "mowing the lawn" -- running a grid pattern over a large search area, hoping to turn up something. This time, the group pinpointed a very specific area to search, Eliason said, and in fact located the Smith just 20 minutes after dropping the sonar unit into the water.
It was the culmination of years of hunches, research and repeated information requests to obscure government agencies and archives -- work that finally paid off with the acquisition of a veritable mountain of raw data.
Eliason's wife, Karen, a software engineer, played a key role in interpreting that information.
"My son says I'm a shipwreck savant and my wife is a computer savant," Jerry Eliason said. "It was a matter of processing the data, writing the formulas."
"It was fun because we were doing something together, and the topic was very interesting," Karen Eliason said. "This was a really sweet one."
The data-processing pointed them toward a possible wreck about 30 miles north of Marquette.
"I thought, 'That's kind of in the same part of the world where the Henry Smith went down," Jerry Eliason said.
So on May 24 he, along with fellow shipwreck hunters Kraig Smith of Rice Lake, Wis., and Ken Merryman of Minneapolis, headed out on the lake. Using a sonar unit developed by Eliason's son, Jarrod, they quickly pinpointed the target wreck and dropped down an underwater camera.
That day and the next, with wreck-hunter Dan Fountain of Marquette joining in to help muscle the camera and its 500-foot tether, the photos and video captured enough details to convince the group that the ship is the Smith -- though it did not capture the name on the side of the ship, something the group plans to try for on a return trip later this summer.
But the wreck's location, its size, the iron ore cargo and details they were able to spot on camera -- such as a unique "flying bridge" atop the pilothouse -- leave no doubt in the minds of the wreck hunters and Stonehouse that it's the Henry B. Smith.
"While we still don't have absolute proof it's the Henry B. Smith, it's the only (lost) ship in the area of that size that had iron ore," said Merryman, who like the others in the group has decades of experience searching for Lake Superior wrecks. Stonehouse also said the Smith is the only missing wreck that would match the location and other evidence.
While a lot of work went into identifying the search location, the relative ease in locating the wreck once out on the lake was a big departure from past finds.
"A number of wrecks we've found have been over the span of 20 years searching, multiple times a year," Kraig Smith said. "Going and finding a wreck 20-some miles offshore in the span of a couple hours is extraordinary."
Now that the Smith has been found, there is work to be done. Finding the wreck "asks more questions than it answers," Stonehouse said.
"(The shipwreck hunters) climbed Mount Everest" in finding the wreck, he said. "Now you have to see what you can see from there."
First up is returning to the site this summer to further document the wreck with underwater cameras on long cables from the surface; the ship's depth puts it out of reach of divers without extremely specialized -- and expensive -- technology.
It appears that the ship is broken in the middle, Merryman said, with the forward part listing a bit but very intact.
"It's a beautiful wreck" with great visibility, he said. "No zebra mussels; clean."
The stern has more damage, Merryman said. Perhaps a boiler exploded, or pressure built up during the sinking burst out.
More time at the wreck should answer many questions, but the shipwreck hunters are starting to piece together possible scenarios for the Smith's demise.
"It's very clear to me that this one appeared to have broken on the surface, spilled its iron ore contents over the bottom, and then landed on the iron ore," Eliason said.
The group already appears to have firmly debunked that dubious message in a bottle, which placed the Smith in a very different location.
Eliason said he'd been considering retiring from wreck hunting, given the enormous time and effort it requires. He wasn't expecting to come up with more significant finds on Lake Superior.
"This was a gift from the lake gods," Eliason said.
Merryman said that as the group left port last month, he had a feeling something special was in the making.
"When things need to happen, they happen," he said. "It's the 100th anniversary. This would be a great memorial, a commemoration of all the people who died in the storm."
For more information
The wreck of the Henry B. Smith is recounted in at least two books:
- "Went Missing" by Frederick Stonehouse
- "Lake Superior Shipwrecks" by Julius Wolff
The ship also is featured in a display at the Marquette Maritime Museum in Marquette, Mich.