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This Ship Mysteriously Sank and Disappeared in 1894. Searchers Just Found It.

The Ironton has been lost for over a century in the waters of Lake Huron. Not anymore.

  • The Ironton went down in a dramatic 1894 sinking that claimed five crew members and was lost to time.
  • Ironton was a 191-foot cargo vessel that was part of a two-ship sinking after a nighttime collision.
  • The recent locating of Ironton shows a well-preserved ship with the life raft still attached.

    The three masts still stand tall below Lake Huron’s surface on the 191-foot Ironton, a ship that went down in 1894, disappeared for over a century, and has finally been found.

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  • The 772-ton Ironton suffered a dramatic demise after a collision with the Ohio, but despite two members of the seven-person crew surviving the event, the wreck of Ironton was never discovered. That all changed thanks to researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the state of Michigan, and Ocean Exploration Trust.

    Using the location of the Ohio as a starting point in 2017, teams further researched the weather and wind conditions from the night of the September 1894 collision and then brought in lakebed mapping, a remote vehicle, and sonar to search below Lake Huron’s surface.

    After finding the Ohio, it took the searchers two more years to locate Ironton. They discovered the cargo vessel hundreds of feet down, largely still intact and with the life raft still connected to the stern.

    That night in September 1894 was a tough one for man ships in “Shipwreck Alley,” but none had it tougher than Ironton. The ship was one of two empty schooner barges being towed to Marquette, Michigan on Lake Superior by the 190-foot steamer Charles J. Kershaw.

    Shortly after midnight, now sailing north across Lake Huron off the shore of Michigan, Kershaw’s engine died, and the wind pushed to the two empty vessels toward Kershaw. The lines between the steamer and schooner barges were cut and Ironton’s crew was adrift in the dark.

    The Ironton crew—under the lead of captain Peter Girard—couldn’t get the steam engine going before the wind pushed it into the path of the southbound steamer Ohio, a 203-foot wooden freighter loaded with 1,000 tons of grain.

    The collision was unavoidable.

    “As this time, we sighted a steamer on our starboard bow,” surviving Ironton crew member William Wooley told the Duluth News Tribune the following day in 1894. “She came up across our bow and we struck her on the quarter about aft of the boiler house. A light was lowered over our bow and we saw a hole in our port bow and our stem splintered.”

    With both ships fatally damaged, the 12-foot diameter hole sunk the Ohio quickly, but all 16 crew members escaped on lifeboats and nearby ships rescued the sailors. Ironton, though, kept drifting away from the rescue party. Roughly an hour later, after long departing the scene of the collision, Ironton started to sink. The seven-man crew headed to the lifeboat, but nobody untied the “painter” line securing the boat to Ironton.

    “Then the Ironton sank, taking the yawl with her,” survivor William W. Parry told the Duluth News Tribune. “As the painter was not untied, I sank underwater, and when I came up grabbed a sailor’s bag. Wooley was a short distance from me on a box. I swam to where he was.”

    Eventually the steamer Charles Hebard rescued Parry and Wooley, but the captain and four other members of the crew were lost.

    Archeologists from the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary and the Great Lakes Water Studies Institute at Northwestern Michigan College worked to use the location of the Ohio wreck and pair it with weather and wind data from the night of the event. While mapping the lakebed and using sonar, they eventually located the Ironton and employed an underwater robot to confirm the identity of the ship.

    “We hope this discovery helps contribute to an element of closure to the extended families of those lost on the Ironton, and the communities impacted by its loss,” Robert Ballard of Ocean Exploration Trust, tells the Associated Press. “The Ironton is yet another piece of the puzzle of Alpena’s fascinating place in America’s history of trade.”