Shipwrecks, although tragic, capture our imagination with their cargos, crews, and their ultimate demise. Time and research reveal many clues about what they were carrying and why they went down. But sometimes, history keeps secrets, and we may never know what went wrong in those fateful days.
In the early 1800s, maritime transportation became the dominant way to ship goods. Coupled with the growth of the railroads and canals, the shores of the Great Lakes became a hub of maritime activity, including shipbuilding.
Lake Erie is the smallest and shallowest of the Great Lakes. However, this has not stopped her from laying claim to the most shipwrecks. An average depth of only 24 feet and many rocky outcrops, sandbars, and several islands make Lake Erie difficult for ships to navigate.
According to NASA, the lack of depth causes waves to be calm one minute and large the next. Storms have also been known to seemingly come out of nowhere, creating 25-foot waves capable of sinking freighters. Fortunately, improvements in technology have led to advanced warnings of dangerous conditions.
OhioHistory.org estimates there are more than 2000 shipwrecks within Lake Erie’s 312-mile shoreline, possibly 600 in American waters. This makes it one of the highest density of shipwrecks in the world.
Two hundred and seventy-seven shipwrecks have been discovered, with the densest area stretching from Toledo to Cleveland. Recently it is believed that the oldest known shipwreck of Lake Erie was found off of Put In Bay.
In 1829, the Lake Serpent, a 47-foot wooden schooner, was returning from what is now known as Kelly’s Island with a load of boulders when it went down. The bodies of the Captain and his brother washed up on shore just west of Cleveland.
In 2018, the National Museum of the Great Lakes announced the Lake Serpent may have been found, making it the oldest known shipwreck in Lake Erie. Further study and images of a trademark Serpent carving on the bottom of the boat have indicated it is more than likely the Serpent.
In 1864, the story of the Sultan, as told by Shipwrecks and Maritime Tales, tells of a wooden cargo ship ferrying grindstones to Buffalo when a storm caused it to scrape a sandbar. After a few hours, the boat took on water and capsized under unrelenting waves. It was just three miles offshore. Only the tops of the masts were above water, giving crew members something to hold onto in hopes of being rescued. However, the storm, cold, and wind left only one first mate alive when two steamers came to save him the next day. The remains are still there today.
The majority of the shipwrecks are believed to be at approximately 200-foot depth. The cold water and sediment have allowed the ships to age slowly with minimal structural changes.
Lake Erie provides many valuable resources to this area of the country. However, the temperamental lake can take just as quickly as it gives, making her still a threat to this day. Each year, some take her for granted and soon regret it. Don’t be fooled by her breathtaking beauty. You only have to go a few feet below the surface to remember those who know her deepest secrets