Researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the state of Michigan, and Ocean Exploration Trust have discovered an intact wreck of the Ironton resting hundreds of feet below the surface of Lake Huron.
Located within NOAA’s Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, the wreck has been identified as the sailing ship Ironton. Preserved by the cold freshwater of the Great Lakes, the Ironton rests upright with its three masts still standing. Although contemporary reports and eye-witness accounts describe the general area of Ironton’s sinking, the exact location remained a mystery for over 120 years.
The Ironton was part of a fleet of wooden schooner barges that once traversed the Great Lakes hauling wheat, coal, corn, lumber, and iron ore. The New York based Niagara River Transportation Company built Ironton in 1873 as a towed schooner barge.
Known as the “consort system,” steamers towed one or several schooner barges and enabled companies to transport greater quantities of cargo across the Great Lakes at a lower cost. Either converted from older sailing vessels or purpose-built, schooner barges had masts and sails to save fuel in the towing steam vessel and in case of emergencies where they needed to sail independently. The vessels were a link in the evolution of sail-powered shipping to mechanized transportation systems.
Measuring about 191 feet long and 35 feet at the beam, the 772-ton Ironton boasted a carrying capacity of more than 48,500 bushels of grain or 1,250 tons of coal. During the ship’s nearly 22-year career, Ironton changed ownership multiple times, transporting iron ore, grain, and coal between ports such as Buffalo, Cleveland, Marquette, and Duluth.
Ironton‘s discovery may answer century-old questions surrounding the ship’s final hours. Sandra Clark, director of the Michigan History Center and co-manager of Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, described the importance of finding historical shipwreck sites such as Ironton:
“Discoveries like this are fascinating because they connect people to Michigan’s long history of maritime innovation and commerce. The more we discover, the more we understand the lives of the men and women who worked the Great Lakes.”
In September 1894, Ironton sank in a collision that took the lives of five of the ship’s crew. Accounts from the wreck’s two survivors provide details about the loss of the vessel in “Shipwreck Alley”—an area of Lake Huron known for its treacherous waters that have claimed the lives of many sailors.
The 190-foot steamer Charles J. Kershaw departed Ashtabula, Ohio, on Lake Erie, with the schooner barges Ironton and Moonlight in tow. The vessels sailed empty, destined for Marquette, Michigan, on Lake Superior.
At 12:30 a.m. on Sept. 26, while sailing north across Lake Huron under clear skies, Kershaw’s engine failed, leaving the ship without power. A few miles north of the Presque Isle Lighthouse, a strong south wind pushed Moonlight and Ironton toward the disabled steamer. To avoid entanglement and a possible collision, Moonlight’s crew cut Ironton’s tow line, detaching the steamer from the schooner barges.
Ironton’s crew found themselves suddenly adrift in the dark and at the mercy of Lake Huron’s wind-blown seas. Under the direction of Captain Peter Girard, they fought to regain control of the ship, firing up the vessel’s auxiliary steam engine to help set the struggling ship’s sails.
Despite their efforts, Ironton, propelled by the wind from astern, veered off course into the path of the southbound steamer Ohio. The 203-foot wooden freighter Ohio was headed to Ogdensburg, NY, from Duluth, Minnesota, loaded with 1,000 tons of grain.
By the time Ironton‘s crew spotted the approaching Ohio through the darkness, it was too late – a head-on collision with the steamer was unavoidable. In an interview published by the Duluth News Tribune the following day, William Wooley of Cleveland, Ohio, a surviving crew member of Ironton, recounted his experience.
“At this time we sighted a steamer on our starboard bow. 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.” (Duluth News Tribune, Sept. 27, 1894)
The two vessels separated after the impact, both fatally damaged. Ironton’s bow tore a 12-foot diameter hole into Ohio’s wooden hull. Heavily laden with cargo, Ohio sank quickly, with all 16 crew escaping on lifeboats. Nearby ships rescued the sailors.
The damaged Ironton, however, drifted out of sight of the responding vessels. By the time Captain Girard realized he could not save the ship, Ironton had drifted for over an hour, far from the view of any surrounding vessels.
As the schooner barge slipped swiftly beneath the waves, Ironton’s seven-man crew retreated to their lifeboat. However, in the commotion, no one untied the “painter,” a line that secured the lifeboat to Ironton. Survivor William W. Parry of East China, Michigan, recounted:
“Then the Ironton sank, taking the yawl with her. 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.” (Duluth News Tribune, September 27, 1894)
Wooley and Parry clung to floating wreckage as they battled the wind and waves in frigid Lake Huron. Within hours the passing steamer Charles Hebard spotted and rescued the men. Lake Huron claimed Captain Girard and four other Ironton crew: Mate Ed Bostwick, Sailor John Pope, and two unidentified sailors.
In 2017, Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary and a group of partners led an expedition to survey 100 square miles of unmapped lakebed within the sanctuary. The team discovered the bulk carrier Ohio in approximately 300 feet of water, but the location of Ironton remained a mystery.
The ship was discovered in 2019 and confirmed in 2020. Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary plans to develop educational materials to help tell the story of Ironton and other shipwrecks in the sanctuary, including exhibits and multimedia products. The sanctuary intends to deploy a deep-water mooring buoy at the site of Ironton to mark the shipwreck’s location and help divers visit the wreck site safely.
Photos, from above: Ironton resting on the bottom with its masts standing, rigging attached to the spars, and anchor still attached (courtesy NOAA/ Undersea Vehicles Program UNCW); the schooner barge Lizzie A. Law, built in 1875 of similar construction to Ironton (courtesy Thunder Bay Sanctuary Research Collection); ROV footage of Ironton reveals the lifeboat that could have saved five men still lashed to the sunken ship’s stern (courtesy NOAA/Undersea Vehicles Program UNCW); image of the Ironton as it sits on the lake floor today made from multibeam sonar (courtesy Ocean Exploration Trust/NOAA).