120-Year-Old Shipwreck Discovered in Lake Superior

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Barge 129 loading coal Courtesy of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society

A Lake Superior shipwreck that has eluded searchers for decades has been found.

The Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society (GLSHS) announced on Oct 12 the discovery of Barge 129, which sank in a storm on Lake Superior on Oct 13, 1902.

For GLSHS Director of Marine Operations Darryl Ertel Jr., it was the end of a long search. “I’ve looked for this ship for so long because it was a Whaleback. I was pretty excited. I couldn't wait to get the cameras on it”.

The unique bow of Barge 129 helped searchers identify it. Courtesy of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society

Barge 129 was one of only 44 “whaleback” ships ever constructed. The peculiar design had curved sides, similar to a large pontoon, with tapered bows with flat ends like a pig’s snout. The ships were constructed from 1887 to 1898 to ferry grain and ore around the Great Lakes. The design was to increase the ships’ stability on high seas. “Whaleback” refers to the ship’s appearance in the water when fully loaded.

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On Oct 13, 1902, Barge 129 was being towed by the steamer Maunaloa. The 292-foot barge was loaded with 2,300 tons of iron ore when the gales of October struck (sound a little familiar?). The force of the waves snapped the tow line between the two vessels. Barge 129 was tossed about with the waves. The Maunaloa turned around and attempted to reconnect the two ships. The two boats slammed together. The Maunaloa’s anchor ripped into Barge 129’s starboard side. As the whaleback began to sink, the Maunaloa’s captain and crew raced to launch their lifeboat for the barge’s crew. As Barge 129’s crew was helped aboard the Maunaloa, the whaleback dipped below the surface and dove 650 feet to the bottom, 35 miles from Vermilion Point.

The steamer Maunaloa Courtesy of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society

Barge 129 was the last undiscovered whaleback wreck in the Great Lakes. The wreckage was initially found along with eight other wrecks in 2021 by the GLSHS in partnership with Marine Sonic Technology using Side Scan Sonar. Side Scan Sonar - Marine Sonic Technology. Barge 129 was positively identified in August 2022.

When the Shipwreck Society put their ROV down on the wreck site this past summer, they were surprised by the devastation of the ship. “It's totally destroyed on the bottom. It's nowhere near intact. It's at least 4 to 5 big pieces and thousands of little pieces. It's just disintegrated,” Ertel said.

“The whalebacks were pretty unusual ships,” stated Shipwreck Society Executive Director Bruce Lynn. “When we had the ROV on it, you could clearly see the distinctive bow with a part of the towline still in place…that was an incredible moment!”

Barge 129 struck Superior’s floor with such force that the ship burst open. Courtesy of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society

Sources

Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum Facebook

Smithsonian Magazine, www.smithsonianmag.com

Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whaleback

Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/129_(barge)

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