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Video: Great Lakes Historical Society Finds Wrecked "Whaleback" Barge

great lakes whaleback barge in black and white
The Barge 129 (photo courtesy Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society)

Published Oct 12, 2022 9:40 PM by The Maritime Executive

The Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society has discovered the wreck of a rare and unusual vessel - a Great Lakes whaleback barge, so called because of the unusual shape of its hull.

The blimp-shaped whaleback was a streamlined conveyance with a design decades ahead of its time. The curved side plating and deck were all that were visible in fully laden condition, giving it the appearance of a surfaced whale. This particular example, Barge 129, went down on October 13, 1902, off Vermilion Point in Lake Superior. The steam freighter Maunaloa had the manned and laden Barge 129 in tow as a "consort barge," but lost the towline in heavy weather. When the Maunaloa turned around to recover the barge and set up a new towline, the waves slammed her port side into the barge, and her port anchor penetrated the barge's side. The crew of the barge abandoned ship into a lifeboat and transferred safely to Maunaloa, but Barge 129 went to the bottom. 

The Shipwreck Society identified the wreck site with sonar in 2021, then returned with an ROV to dive the wreckage this summer. They found it in rough shape, according to Director of Marine Operations Darryl Ertel Jr. "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," he said. 

Even damaged, it was clearly identifiable as a whaleback, said Shipwreck Society Executive Director Bruce Lynn. “The whalebacks were pretty unusual ships," he said. “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!"

There is one surviving whaleback, the SS Meteor, which is moored as a museum ship at Superior, Wisconsin.