130-Year-Old Great Lakes Schooner Discovered in Lake Superior

Courtesy Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society

Published Mar 4, 2022 9:24 PM by The Maritime Executive

The Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society has confirmed that it has discovered the wreck of the Atlanta, a lost schooner-barge that went down on Lake Superior 130 years ago.

The Atlanta sank off the coast of Michigan's Upper Peninsula on May 3, 1891. She was under tow behind the steamer Wilhelm on a westbound trip, laden with coal. The weather worsened as they passed off Deer Park, Michigan, and the Wilhelm opted to reverse course to return to a sheltered location. However, the towline snapped, leaving the schooner adrift. The vessel began taking on water, and despite overnight efforts to save her, she went down. Her crew abandoned ship into a lifeboat, which capsized near shore, claiming five lives. Just two crewmembers survived. 

The wreck is in surprisingly good condition, according to the society. She rests in about 650 feet of water on a soft bottom, and the gilt lettering on her name is still intact. 

 “It is rare that we find a shipwreck that so clearly announces what it is and the name-board of the Atlanta really stands out,” said Bruce Lynn, Executive Director of the GLSHS. “It is truly ornate, and still beautiful after 130 years on the bottom of Lake Superior.”

Using a combination of historical research, technology and teamwork, historians at GLSHS mapped more than 2,500 miles of Lake Superior where ships were reported lost, using sidescan sonar to evaluate promising areas. The Atlanta site was identified last year and later confirmed with an ROV dive.

ROV footage shows that the vessel's three masts are all missing, as reported by the surviving crewmembers after the casualty. Much of the vessel's original equipment is readily visible, including a water pump and fittings from the head. 

The wreck is too deep for the average diver to reach, preventing the possibility of disturbance, and the deep, cold freshwater environment has preserved it well - like many other shipwrecks on the Great Lakes. The Atlanta is just one of ten contacts that the society recently identified for investigation, and it will be following up on others with ROV dives in the year to come. All told, it believes there are more than 6,000 shipwrecks in the vast waters of the Great Lakes, including about 550 - most of which are still undiscovered - on the bottom of Lake Superior.