LAKE HURON, Mich. – The intact shipwreck of a sunken vessel has been located after over a century in an area of Lake Huron known for its treacherous waters that have once claimed the lives of many sailors.
Magnificently preserved in the cold freshwater of the Great Lakes, Ironton currently rests upright with the ship's three masts still standing after 125 years. Today, researchers say the 191-foot workhorse looks like it's almost ready to load cargo underwater.
"The discovery illustrates how we can use the past to create a better future," said Jeff Gray, Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary superintendent. "Using this cutting-edge technology, we have not only located a pristine shipwreck lost for over a century, we are also learning more about one of our nation's most important natural resources – the Great Lakes. This research will help protect Lake Huron and its rich history."
According to researchers, the 772-ton ship sailed for nearly 22 years transporting iron ore, grain and coal between ports such as Buffalo, Cleveland, Marquette and Duluth.
Ironton sank in a wreck with another bulk carrier in September 1894 that killed five of Ironton's seven-man crew. The two survivors lived to tell the tale of lost the schooner barge found in "Shipwreck Alley."
NOAA said that the two vessels separated after the impact, both fatally damaged.
William Wooley, of Cleveland, was a surviving crew member of Ironton. He recounted his experience on this ship during an interview in the Duluth News Tribune published a day following the sinking.
"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," he said. "A light was lowered over our bow, and we saw a hole in our port bow and our stem splintered.
The damaged Ironton would soon drift out of sight of any surrounding rescue vessels.
Researchers from NOAA's Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, the state of Michigan and Ocean Exploration Trust used cutting-edge oceanographic technology to discover and document the shipwreck.
In 2017, an expedition got underway to survey 100 square miles of unmapped lakebed within the sanctuary. The carrier that struck Irontron was found by the team in about 300 feet of water. However, the location of Ironton remained a mystery.
Two years later, hydrographers and the latest innovation in underwater mapping technology, including an autonomous surface vehicle, were brought to Michigan.
"Sonar returned an image from the lakebed of an unmistakable shipwreck – and one that matched the description of Ironton," NOAA said. "The sonar images provided great detail, but the team had more work to do in order to confirm the identity of the discovered wreck."
In June 2021, scientists returned to the site to conduct a more thorough investigation of Ironton and collect high-resolution video to further document the wreck.
Sandra Clark, director of the Michigan History Center and co-manager of Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, said the importance of finding historical shipwreck sites, such as Ironton, helps 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," she said.