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Historic Schooner Barge ‘Ironton’ Discovered Fully Intact in Lake Huron

The ROV footage of Ironton hauntingly reveals the lifeboat still lashed to the sunken ship's stern. A lifeboat that could have saved five men. Photo: NOAA/Undersea Vehicles Program UNCW

Historic Schooner Barge ‘Ironton’ Discovered Fully Intact in Lake Huron

Mike Schuler
Total Views: 15191
March 2, 2023

Researchers have discovered the intact wreck of the sailing ship Ironton in Lake Huron, which has been remarkably well preserved by the lake’s cold freshwater for more than a century.

The 191-foot Ironton sank in September 1894 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 an area known as “Shipwreck Alley”—known for its treacherous waters that have claimed the lives of many sailors. But the exact location of the exact location remained a mystery for over 120 years.

Researchers from NOAA, the state of Michigan, and Ocean Exploration Trust used cutting-edge technology to discover the wreck hundreds of feet below Lake Huron’s surface in what is now the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

Built in 1873 by the Niagara River Transportation Company, the three-masted Ironton represents the fleet of wooden schooner barges that were once the workhorses of the Great Lakes.

The Ironton was found resting upright with its three masts still standing.

Image of the schooner-barge Ironton as it sits on the lake floor today. This image is a point cloud extracted from water column returns from multibeam sonar. Image: Ocean Exploration Trust/NOAA

Ironton departed on its fateful voyage on September 6, 1894, under tow by the 190-foot steamer Charles J. Kershaw along with a second barge. While sailing north across Lake Huron under clear skies, Kershaw’s engine failed, leaving the vessels adrift.

Ironton was eventually cut loose and, despite the efforts of its crew, veered off course and into the path of a southbound steamer named Ohio. The two vessels collided head-on, sinking them both.

In 2017, an expedition to survey 100 square miles of unmapped lakebed within the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary led to the discovery of the Ohio in approximately 300 feet of water, but the location of the Ironton remained a mystery.

Ironton rests hundreds of feet below the surface with its three masts standing and rigging attached to the spars, and is magnificently preserved by the cold freshwater of Lake Huron. An anchor rests still attached on the bow of the sunken schooner barge. Photo: NOAA/ Undersea Vehicles Program UNCW

Researchers returned to the area two years later armed with the location of Ohio and further research into the weather and wind conditions from the night of the fatal collision. Eventually sonar returned an image from the lakebed of a shipwreck matching the description of Ironton.

A third expedition to the area in June 2021 was successful in collecting high-resolution video and further documentation of the wreck, leading to confirmation that it was, in fact, the Ironton.

“Resting upright and incredibly well preserved by Lake Huron’s cold freshwater, Ironton looks almost ready to load cargo,” NOAA said in its announcement.

“Discoveries like this are fascinating because they connect people to Michigan’s long history of maritime innovation and commerce,” said Sandra Clark, director of the Michigan History Center and co-manager of Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary. “The more we discover, the more we understand the lives of the men and women who worked the Great Lakes.”

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