Nearly 100 years after the Henry B. Smith freighter went down during a November storm in Lake Superior, a group of shipwreck hunters believes it has found the ship — and much of it is largely intact.
The Duluth News Tribune reported the group found the wreck last month in about 535 feet of water off the shore of Marquette, Mich. The group says it hasn't seen the name of the ship on the wreck yet, but all signs indicate it's the Smith, sitting amid a spilled load of iron ore.
"It's the most satisfying find of my shipwreck-hunting career," said Jerry Eliason, of Cloquet, part of the group that has found many lost ships in recent years.
"It's a fantastic find," said maritime historian Frederick Stonehouse, of Marquette, who has written about the Smith. "I'm excited at the opportunity to look at the video and see if we can learn the cause of the wreck, to write the final chapter of the ship."
The Henry B. Smith and its crew of 25 disappeared after sailing into the Great Lakes Storm of 1913. The storm, one of the biggest on the lakes, wrecked more than a dozen ships and killed about 250 sailors. The Smith was safe in the Marquette harbor on Nov. 7 and 8, and loading iron ore, but on the evening of Nov. 9, Capt. James Owen decided to leave port for Cleveland.
"The lake was still rolling, but there seemed to be a lull in the wind, the velocity having dropped to 32 mph," shipwreck expert and longtime University of Minnesota Duluth professor Julius Wolff wrote in "Lake Superior Shipwrecks." "The gale ... should have blown itself out. But, this was no conventional storm. In taking his vessel out of the safety of Marquette Harbor, Captain James Owen sailed into eternity."
Sailors on other boats reported seeing Smith deckhands battening down hatches as it went onto the open lake, Stonehouse wrote in his book, "Went Missing." Other witnesses watched the ship make a turn to port, as if Owen had decided to head back to shore.
Then the Smith vanished — and entered Great Lakes lore as a "ghost ship."
Eliason isn't revealing exactly how his group found the Smith, because he hopes to use the same method to find other wrecks. But he said it wasn't a case of merely running a grid pattern over the lake in hopes of getting lucky. He said the group used a culmination of hunches, research and data to pinpoint a specific search area.
The data pointed them toward a possible wreck about 30 miles north of Marquette, and the hunters found the Smith just 20 minutes after dropping a sonar unit into the water. An underwater camera captured enough detail in videos and photos to convince the group that they found the Smith.
"A number of wrecks we've found have been over the span of 20 years searching, multiple times a year," said Kraig Smith, a member of the hunting group from Rice Lake, Wis. "Going and finding a wreck 20-some miles offshore in the span of a couple hours is extraordinary."
Fellow hunter Ken Merryman, of Minneapolis, said it appears the ship is broken in the middle, but is largely intact in the front. The stern has more damage, Merryman said.
"It's a beautiful wreck" with great visibility, he said. "No zebra mussels; clean."
The crew will return to the site this summer in hopes of getting more questions answered. But the group is already starting to piece together events that led to the Smith's demise.
"It's very clear to me that this one appeared to have broken on the surface, spilled its iron ore contents over the bottom, and then landed on the iron ore," said Eliason, who had been considering retiring from wreck hunting partly because he wasn't expecting any more significant finds on Lake Superior.
"This was a gift from the lake gods," Eliason said.