‘Unusual’ 120-Year-Old Shipwreck Discovered In Lake Superior Wows Researchers

An unusual ship lost in a raging storm more than a century ago has been rediscovered under 650 feet of water in Lake Superior, giving researchers and enthusiasts a glimpse into another era.

The Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society (GLSHS) said Barge 129, a “whaleback” ship lost on Oct. 13, 1902, was found last year using sonar about 35 miles off Vermilion Point, Michigan. Now, the organization has sent down a camera to confirm the discovery and get an up-close look at the wreck:

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Whalebacks were built in the late 19th century and used mostly for cargo within the Great Lakes. The odd name comes from the ship’s even odder design, as seen in this image of Barge 129 in its heyday:

Barge 129
Barge 129

Courtesy Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society

“The whalebacks were pretty unusual ships,” Bruce Lynn, executive director of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, said in a news release. “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, which was carrying iron ore, was being towed by the steamer Maunaloa when a storm hit, snapping the towline that had kept the ships together. Maunaloa tried to reconnect, but the ships collided. Maunaloa’s anchor hit 129, ripping through its starboard side.

The barge’s crew escaped in lifeboats as their ship sank, and were rescued by Maunaloa.

Barge 129's capstan and hawser line.
Barge 129’s capstan and hawser line.

Courtesy Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society

“I’ve looked for this ship for so long because it was a whaleback. I was pretty excited,” GLSHS director of marine operations Darryl Ertel Jr. said in a news release. “I couldn’t wait to get the cameras on it.”

The ship itself was pretty wrecked, even by shipwreck standards.

“It’s totally destroyed on the bottom,” said Ertel. “It’s nowhere near intact. It’s at least four to five big pieces and thousands of little pieces. It’s just disintegrated.”

There’s just one surviving example of a whaleback left: the SS Meteor, which has been transformed into a museum that’s permanently land-berthed on Barker’s Island in Wisconsin, on the far western end of Lake Superior.

Maunaloa continued to operate for much of the 20th century but was sold for scrap in 1971.

Steel hull of Barge 129.
Steel hull of Barge 129.

Courtesy Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society

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