Historic schooner ‘Ironton’ discovered fully intact in Lake Huron

researchers have discovered the intact wreck of the sailing ship iron clay in Lake Huron, beautifully preserved by the lake’s cold fresh water for more than a century.

The 191 foot iron clay sank in September 1894 in a collision that killed five crew members. Accounts from the wreck’s two survivors provide details of the ship’s loss 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 site remained a mystery for over 120 years.

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

The three-master was built in 1873 by the Niagara River Transportation Company iron clay depicts the fleet of wooden barges that were once the workhorses of the Great Lakes.

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

Image of the schooner barge Ironton as it lies at the bottom of the lake today. This image is a point cloud extracted from water column echoes from multi-beam sonars. Image: Ocean Exploration Trust/NOAA

iron clay embarked on his fateful journey on September 6, 1894 in tow of the 190-foot steamer Charles J Kershaw along with a second barge. As we sail north across Lake Huron in clear skies, Kershaw’s The engine failed, leaving the ships adrift.

iron clay was eventually torn loose and, despite the efforts of her crew, veered off course and in the direction of a southbound steamer named Ohio. The two ships collided head-on, sinking them both.

In 2017, an expedition to survey 100 square miles of uncharted seabed at Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary led to the discovery of the Ohio in about 300 feet of water, but the location of the iron clay remained a mystery.

The researchers returned to the area two years later, armed with the find Ohio and further research into the weather and wind conditions on the night of the fatal collision. Eventually, the sonar provided an image of the seabed of a shipwreck that matched the description iron clay.

A third expedition to the area in June 2021 was successful in collecting high definition video and further documentation of the wreck, leading to confirmation that it was indeed the wreck iron clay.

“Upright dormant and incredibly well preserved by the cold fresh waters of Lake Huron, iron clay looks almost ready to load cargo,” NOAA said in its Notice.

“Discoveries like these 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 the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary. “The more we discover, the better we understand the lives of the men and women who worked on the Great Lakes.”

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