Photos show 129-year-old Ironton shipwreck, lifeboat still attached

  • Researchers have uncovered the site of a long-lost shipwreck deep in Lake Huron.
  • The Ironton and her lifeboat went down in September 1894 after a collision with another ship.
  • NOAA has kept their discovery secret until now so researchers could document the site without interference.

Nearly five years after discovering the site of a long-lost shipwreck at the bottom of Lake Huron, oceanographers announced this month that the mystery of the sunken Ironton, a 190-foot cargo ship that sank amid gale-force winds in 1894, has finally been put to rest been laid.

Divers and pundits alike had long searched for evidence of the sinking of the Ironton, a 19th-century shipwreck that killed five crew members and left only two survivors after sinking near Thunder Bay on Lake Huron, a notoriously dangerous one Waterway known as “Shipwreck Alley”.

Finally, in 2019, researchers from the National Oceanic Atmosphere Administration, the state of Michigan and the Ocean Exploration Trust discovered the nearly perfectly intact shipwreck hundreds of feet below the surface of Lake Huron, completely preserved thanks to the cold fresh water that flows through the Great Lakes, according to The Associated Press, which first reported the story.

Despite discovering the wreck in 2019, NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuaries office waited until this week to announce the update, telling the AP it was keeping the discovery secret to ward off divers who might disturb the site before officers finished collecting photo and video evidence. The agency plans to announce the location of the wreck in the coming months, the outlet reported.

Surviving witnesses described in 1894 how the large steamer towing the Ironton on that fateful September night collided with a grain truck and was forced to disconnect from the barge to avoid entanglement and another collision, leaving the Ironton and her seven crew members were left alone and adrift in the cold and darkness, the National Marine Sanctuaries said in a news release Wednesday.

When it became clear that the ship was going to sink, the Ironton’s captain and six sailors climbed aboard a lifeboat. But amid their panic, no one thought to detach the lifeboat from the ship, and crew members were dragged down alongside the ship, surviving sailors told a local newspaper at the time, according to NOAA.

Photos of the Ironton wreck at the bottom of Lake Huron show the small lifeboat still tied to the ship, confirming the centuries-old history.

The Ironton's lifeboat lies at the bottom of Lake Huron.

In this image from video provided by Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, a lifeboat is tethered to the Ironton, seen in Lake Huron off Michigan’s east coast in a June 2021 photo.

Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary via AP

“Archaeologists study things to learn about the past. But it’s not really things that we study; they’re people,” Jeff Gray, superintendent of Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, told the AP. “And that lifeboat… really connects you to the site and reminds you how powerful the lakes are and what it must have been like to work on them and lose people to them.”

As the Ironton and her lifeboat descended, two sailors grabbed bags and boxes floating in the water and were eventually rescued by a passing steamer, according to NOAA.

Three masts of the Ironton are still standing, even after 130 years on the bottom of the lake, as photos show. No human remains were found under the rubble, the AP reported.

Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary and its partners first set out to find Ironton in 2017 during an expedition that tasked researchers with mapping 100 square miles of lake bottom. During this project, the organization discovered the wreck of the Ohio, the steamer that the Ironton collided with that night, but the schooner continued to evade them.

Two years later, in the final days of another expedition, researchers at the sanctuary finally found the lost vessel using an autonomous surface vehicle, according to NOAA.

Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary plans to anchor a buoy at the site of the wreck in the coming months so divers can explore the wreck, according to the AP.

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