Survey uncovers wreck of 19th-century Great Lakes steamer

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The following is text of a news release from the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society (GLSHS)

(SAULT STE. MARIE, Mich.) — The Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society, a leader in the field of underwater exploration and shipwreck documentation on the Upper Great Lakes, recently discovered the wreckage of the composite steamer S.R. Kirby. The vessel sank in Lake Superior near Eagle Harbor, Mich., in May 1916. S.R. Kirby was a relatively unusual ship, in that it was constructed using an iron framework, with a wooden hull. The vessel was 294 feet long, built in 1890 (Wyandotte, Mich.) and rests in over 800 feet of water.

“We found what appeared to be wreckage last year while searching in this area. We weren’t certain that it was a shipwreck, but were able to take a closer look this year. We thought it might have been the Kirby," said the shipwreck society’s director of marine operations, Darryl Ertel Jr. Ertel and his team used the society’s ROV (remotely operated vehicle) to positively identify the vessel, by the nature of the wreckage, as being that of Kirby.

Using a combination of historical research, technology and teamwork, members of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society’s Underwater Research team have mapped areas where ships were reported lost, then searched those areas using the organization’s 50-foot’research vessel, David Boyd. A Marine Sonic Technology (Atlas North America) side-scan sonar is employed to analyze the lake bottom and identify submerged wrecks.

In the spring of 1916, S.R. Kirby was towing the 352-foot steel barge George E. Hartnell, both loaded with iron ore and bound for Cleveland. Kirby was under the command of Capt. David Girardin, a veteran Great Lakes skipper. A fierce northwest gale, with winds clocked at 76 mph in Duluth, descended on the lake and battered the two ships as they plowed on toward the Keweenaw. As the vessels closed on Eagle Harbor, Mich., Kirby was struck by a massive wave, broke up, and quickly sank. Of the 22-man crew, only two were rescued. One of two survivors, second mate Joseph Mudra, later reflected “… the steamer broke in two without a moments warning … as the ship went down, which took up so little time that I could scarcely believe my eyes, cabins broke loose and rafts floated. I did not see any of the men come up out of the forecastle, and while I saw some of them afterward clinging to bits of wreckage, I believe most of them were caught in the forecastle and were unable to get out.”

“This is an interesting ship, and a pretty sad story," said Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society Executive Director Bruce Lynn. "Historical accounts tell us that the Kirby was heavily overloaded, and perhaps improperly loaded, when she departed Ashland, Wis. If this is true, she didn’t have much of a chance in such a storm. It is probably a small miracle that other ships were in the area that morning, and helped the Hartnell and her crew to get to safety.” On a lighter note, the captain’s dog, Tige, was later rescued by the Eagle Harbor Coast Guard crew and safely delivered to his wife in Detroit.

The S.R. Kirby wreck site is now being documented by the shipwreck society and its story will eventually be told at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, located at Whitefish Point, Mich.

By Professional Mariner Staff