Old Whitey

Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary and Underwater Preserve occupies 4,300 square miles of Lake Huron on the northern half of Michigan’s southern peninsula. This zone was the 13th area to be protected in American waters but the first in the Great Lakes.

As you might gather from a name such as Thunder Bay, the region is more like a rollicking sea than a placid lake. This slice of Lake Huron has claimed hundreds of ships in the past several centuries. Within the confines of the sanctuary, nearly 200 historically significant shipwrecks dot the floor of the lake.

Recently, the maps received a new entry, as underwater archaeologists working for the National Marine Sanctuary discovered the resting place of a vessel that had long eluded searchers.

A smattering of important shipwrecks in Thunder Bay - graphic by NOAA

In September 1894, several negative situations combined to doom two ships. Just past midnight on the 26th, a steamer towed the Ironton and the Moonlight, both schooner barges nearly 200 feet long, toward Marquette on the shore of Lake Superior. As the lake-ocean roiled around them, the steamer lost power. Both barges disconnected their lines, hoping to press onward under their own control.

The Ironton, perhaps disoriented because of darkness, dense fog, fatigue, or a combination of all three, deviated from their plotted course. Often on large bodies of water, a divagation might seem more like the billions of small rocks soaring through interstellar space; the likelihood of an intersection between two bodies is minimal. But, in Thunder Bay, space is filled with abounding dangers. Numerous islands, shallow reefs, a crossflow of traffic near the Straits of Mackinac, which separates Huron and Lake Michigan, and terrible weather, all conspire to sink ships. The Ironton plowed into a freighter named Ohio, carrying 1,000 pounds of flour (interestingly, Ironton is a city along the namesake Ohio river).

The Ohio quickly succumbed to Lake Huron. Despite the quick foundering, the Moonlight managed to save all the crew from the Ohio. The Ironton survived an hour before sinking. As the ship started to plunge, the captain and six crew attempted to deploy the lifeboat. Tragically, they could not detach it from the barge in time. When the Ironton went down, only three managed to escape, bobbing in high waves and heavy wind. The rest joined the bigger boat on the bottom of the massive lake.

Eventually, another ship came to rescue the three. The conditions were so bad that a lifeboat from the Charles Hebard overturned during the extraction. One of the three could not hold on, leaving only two of the crew to survive the Ironton. Researchers discovered the remnants of the Ohio in 2017. But the Ironton wasn’t with her. Not until a recent scan did they find the second ship about 10 miles away.

The images they uncovered confirmed the ending phases of the Ironton’s demise.

The Ironton shipwreck - photo from NOAA via Associated Press
The Ironton's bow - photo from NOAA via Associated Press
The lifeboat of the Ironton, still attached - photo from NOAA via Associated Press

The picture above shows the Ironton’s lifeboat, still attached to the ship.

The Great Lakes feature some extraordinary depths. Lake Huron’s maximum depth is 751 feet; Superior reaches more than 1,300 feet below the surface. The combination of freshwater (saltwater will eventually corrode), a temperature barely above freezing, and a lack of light make it really hard for entities to live there. Including the microbes that tend to break down organic matter: bacteria. The results are often pristinely preserved shipwrecks. The crude wood of the Ironton’s lifeboat has not deteriorated in more than 125 years in Lake Huron.

After documenting the scene, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is considering making the site a public dive. The conditions there will allow shipwreck hunters the opportunity to witness this piece of history for many years to come.

The Great Lakes are wonderful at preserving the ships they take, but they can also be good at preserving more than just nuts, bolts, masts, and rigging. 

SS Kamloops - photo from National Park Service

On 6 December 1927, south of a different Thunder Bay in Ontario, Canada, near the fantastic Isle Royale National Park, a ship named SS Kamloops became snarled in a massive winter storm. Spotted at dusk, covered in ice, the vessel never made it to port.

The story of the Kamloops stands out from the other countless wrecks on Superior due to its aftermath. A search-and-rescue mission in December proved fruitless. When the ice receded from Superior in April, authorities restarted the pursuit. In May, the remains of nine crewmembers were discovered at a point on Isle Royale, along with some wreckage, including a lifeboat. However, the ship and the remaining 13 people were nowhere to be found.

In December 1928, a trapper working at the mouth of the Agawa River, hundreds of miles away, near the canal that connects Superior and Huron, discovered a bottle. Incredibly, within was a message. The note stated the survivor – “Al, who is dead” – was part of the Kamloops crew. Al described the storm and the crash of the boat, writing, “I am the last one left alive, freezing and starving to death on Isle Royale. I just want mom and dad to know my fate.”

The handwriting was verified by the family to belong to Alice Bettridge. Somehow, some members of the crew had survived the ordeal and managed to make it to Isle Royale. Unfortunately, the island in December, without shelter or supplies, is akin to a death warrant. Isle Royale is the only National Park in the contiguous United States that closes for winter. Bettridge’s body was one of the nine recovered in May 1928.

For decades, the message in a bottle seemed to be the final chapter of the Kamloops saga. 

The helm wheel of SS Kamloops - photo from NPS

In 1977, the Kamloops divulged it still had at least two secrets to reveal.

Divers finally discovered the wreck site in August of that year. Like the Ironton, the remains of the ship were remarkably well preserved. Divers can encounter the ship’s telegraph, its wire-fence cargo, high-top shoes from the 1920s, crates of Honey Bee Molasses, and, ironically, Life Savers candies with paper wrappers still intact. The site is a time capsule beneath 265 feet of water.

Life Savers preserved at the site - photo by Jitka Hanakova
Shoes on the Kamloops - photo by Jitka Hanakova

Cargo and personal effects are not the only things guarding the resting spot of Kamloops, however. 

Preserved in the wreckage are the remains of a human. The cold water and dearth of bacteria have allowed the body to become an underwater mummy of sorts. The corpse is white because the fats in the body have leeched to the surface of the skin, leaving it covered in a substance called adipocere, sometimes called grave wax or corpse wax. The identity of the person is unknown, but, because of its color, divers have taken to calling the person “Old Whitey.”

To date, out of respect for the dead, few images of Old Whitey have surfaced. Those that we have are taken from angles that keep most of the body obscured.

Old Whitey's legs in the Kamloops - unknown photographer

Thanks to the incredible properties of Lake Superior’s water, Old Whitey continues to vigilantly watch over SS Kamloops, waiting for you to learn to dive, so you can visit.

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