TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. – Explorers have discovered the wreckage of an ore carrier that mysteriously sank during a storm on Lake Superior 100 years ago, officials announced Monday.
Only one survivor made it to shore as the ship went down on Oct. 11, 1907. Last month, a team with the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society found the wreckage of the Cyprus about 460 feet below the surface.
The Great Lakes are littered with thousands of shipwrecks, but the Cyprus is among the more puzzling.
It was on only its second voyage, hauling iron ore from Superior, Wis., to Buffalo, N.Y., when the 420-foot-long ship capsized and quickly sank.
The wreckage was located about eight miles north of Deer Park, a village in Michigan's eastern Upper Peninsula where the lone survivor, Charles G. Pitz, stumbled ashore after floating aboard a life raft for nearly seven hours. Twenty-two others aboard the Cyprus perished.
Pitz's great-niece, Ann Sanborn, said she hoped the discovery would lead to an explanation of the Cyprus' fate. Pitz died in 1961, following a long career as a mariner.
"The people who died on that vessel deserve that the truth be brought out, whatever that truth is," said Sanborn, an associate professor in the marine transportation department of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y.
Built in Lorain, Ohio, the Cyprus was launched Aug. 17, 1907. It was as "seaworthy a vessel as has ever been turned out by a lake ship yard," The Marine Review, a Cleveland trade publication, said after the sinking.
The gale in which the ship perished was "so moderate that only the smaller class of vessels sought shelter while the big steamers scarcely noticed it at all," the Review said.
But Pitz, the second mate, said after the wreck that the Cyprus was being pounded by northwesterly waves and developed a gradually worsening list the fatal afternoon.
The engines finally stopped and crew members donned life jackets. Most headed to lifeboats, but Pitz and three others — the captain, the first mate and a watchman — gathered near a raft closer to the front.
About 7:45 p.m., the Cyprus capsized and quickly sank.
Pitz and his companions were hurled into the lake. They climbed aboard the raft and by 2 a.m. had drifted within 300 feet of land. But the raft flipped over several times in the churning surf, drowning everyone but Pitz, who washed ashore, cold and exhausted.
All but two of the 22 victims' bodies were recovered.
The cause of the wreck is a matter of debate. News reports speculated water had entered the Cyprus' hold through faulty hatch covers, causing the ore cargo to shift and create the dangerous list.
Pitz insisted the hatch covers were battened down, although Sanborn, who has researched the tragedy, said water did get through them.
"There were absolutely no doubts that there were problems with the hatches," she said in a phone interview last week.
Hull damage is another possibility, said Tom Farnquist, the group's executive director.
The captain of a steamer that passed near the Cyprus before it sank said it was trailed by a reddish wake. That suggests water had gotten into the cargo hold, where it was discolored by the iron ore. The water then was being pumped out or was seeping through the hull, Farnquist said.
Fred Stonehouse, a marine historian and author in Marquette, offered another theory: The Cyprus was doomed by engine or rudder trouble that prevented the crew from staying out of deep troughs between the waves, where ships are especially vulnerable to tipovers.
Farnquist said the shipwreck society would send its underwater cameras back to the site for further study. Two inspections have shown that half the pilot house is missing and wreckage is strewn 270 feet off the bow, he said.
Pitz had estimated the ship was 10 miles farther offshore than it turned out to be — one reason no one discovered the site earlier, Farnquist said.
"It's a relief knowing that finally this ship has been located," said Bill Thorne of Sault Ste. Marie. His uncle, George Thorne, was the watchman who almost made it to shore with Pitz. His body was found three days later, still strapped to the raft.
"Now we have a better understanding of what happened to George," Thorne said.