Great Lakes shipwreck find closes door on 100-year-old wonder
The freighter J. H. Jones was missing for more than 100 years. Shipwreck hunters found the wreckage in two hours. Ken Merryman, who lives in Fridley, Minn., cites a combination of luck and research for the quick find. "We've never had that good o...
The freighter J. H. Jones was missing for more than 100 years. Shipwreck hunters found the wreckage in two hours.
Ken Merryman, who lives in Fridley, Minn., cites a combination of luck and research for the quick find.
“We’ve never had that good of a starting point on any other wreck,” said Merryman, the search team leader. “Even at that, it was a bit of luck.”
The shipwreck was found near Cape Croker, a slice of land hanging off the Bruce Peninsula, which separates the Georgian Bay from Lake Huron. While the J. H. Jones’ final destination was Manitoulin Island, it wrecked en route to the city of Lion’s Head, Ontario.
For a hobby that can take decades of searching to turn up a discovery, Merryman was nothing short of surprised they came across the Great Lakes wreck so quickly. However, any sense of shock the three hunters felt about finding the ship was rivaled by the fourth passenger’s excitement at the discovery.
“I didn’t give it a chance to find that boat,” Bob Crawford said. “It had been down there for 112 years, I just thought I was moral support along for the ride. But when we saw this spot on the sonar, boy, everybody was getting excited.”
Bob Crawford, a resident of Warren, Mich., is the great-grandson of James Crawford, the captain of the J. H. Jones, who went down with his ship when heavy wind and rains sunk the 107-foot steamship in 1906.
“I don’t know exactly what happened, but there were gale force winds that day,” said Dan Crawford, also a native of Warren and the great-great-grandson of the captain. “There was a lighthouse keeper who saw the light of the boat then looked away. When he turned around, the light in the boat was gone.”
That’s the story generations of the Crawford family have told since the downing of the wreck. When Dan was 10 years old, his dad Bob visited the lighthouse holding records of the last sighting of the J. H. Jones. During the visit, the current lighthouse keeper pointed out for the duo where the ship probably went down. Bob Crawford said that got his son excited about finding the ship.
“Ever since then, he kept mentioning, ‘Boy, dad, we need to find that ship,’ ” said Bob Crawford. That dream became reality when Dan Crawford reached out to Merryman about potentially looking for the J. H. Jones in the same area they had found a different wreck in 2017.
Both Robert and Dan Crawford may have been intimately involved in helping recover the wreck, but the history and search for the J. H. Jones has been a family affair for years. Toronto-native Andrea Curtis, the great-granddaughter of the captain, published “ Into the Blue: Family Secrets and the Search for a Great Lakes Shipwreck ” in 2003. Its pages recounts the history of the J. H. Jones and the life of the late captain’s daughter Eleanor, the grandmother of Curtis.
Curtis is only distantly related to the Crawfords, but her research turned up a bounty of anecdotal data on the wreckage.
“One thing that’s really important to remember, the Great Lakes were the main way to get around this area in 1906,” said Curtis. “You couldn’t underestimate the shipping lines at that time.”
Curtis said the ship carried both passengers and cargo in the Great Lakes. It was based in Wiarton, Ontario, which was also the home of the ship’s crew. It’s why Wiarton residents think of the shipwreck as the city’s worst disaster. While the numbers are disputed, around 13 crew members and about 17 passengers were aboard the ship when it went down. None survived.
JHJonesVimeoShort from Kenneth Merryman on Vimeo .
“The devastation that this wreck wreaked in this town (Wiarton) and the community was terrible,” said Curtis.
While very little wreckage was discovered near the last known location of the ship, the remains of one passenger and several sections of the ship like the wheel house were found on Christian Island, more than 60 miles east of the site.
Dan Crawford said one of the most exciting features of the wreck’s discovery was seeing the ship’s steam whistle still in tact. A notable feature of the J. H. Jones steamship, it would sound its whistle when it neared the port.
The wreck was found on July 1, but there had been rumors of the ship’s location for years. Fisherman have complained of snagging their lines on the wreck, while the indigenous population that lives on the peninsula have made mentions of seeing the ship before. Merryman said this information, along with the help of background research from family members and fellow shipwreck hunter Cris Kohl is what made finding the wreck easy.
A friend of the Crawford family is planning a small memorial next year for the ship. Dan Crawford said not only does this close a chapter in the family storybook, it also gives residents in the town of Wiarton some closure.
“It’s a well-known story throughout the community,” said Dan Crawford. “All crewmembers were from there. It’s a touching memory now because everyone knows where the boat is.”