Lake Superior shipwreck discovered after more than a century

Historic image of the S.R. Kirby in the ice. Photo credit Father Edward J. Dowling, S.J. Marine Historical Collection, University of Detroit Mercy

Marine Sonic Technology sonar image. Photo credit GLSHS

ROUV underwater image. Photo credit GLSHS

A team of researchers recently discovered a long-forgotten treasure resting on the bottom of Lake Superior for more than a century. 

A composite steamer, the S.R. Kirby, had eluded scientists and shipwreck enthusiasts for years, quietly resting in 800 feet of fresh water, after sinking near Eagle Harbor, Michigan in May of 1916.  

At the forefront of shipwreck documentation and underwater exploration on the Upper Great Lakes, is a team of researchers from The Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society. 

Last year, the team discovered what appeared to be wreckage. After taking a closer look, they uncovered the 103-year-old time capsule sitting the dark waters of Lake Superior.

Director of Marine Operations, Darryl Ertel Jr., along with his team of researchers were able to make a positive identification using the society’s remotely operated underwater vehicle.

According to BGSU, the composite ship was built by the Detroit Dry Dock Company in 1890 in Wyandotte, Michigan.

An underwater research team comprised of GLSHS members, utilized side-scan sonar technology to map areas of interest, hoping to identify signs of submerged shipwrecks utilizing the organization’s 50-foot-long research vessel. 

History reveals that during the spring of 1916, the S.R. Kirby was towing the 352-foot steel barge George E. Hartnell.

Both ships were heavily loaded with iron ore and Cleveland bound 

Capt.David Girardin, a Great Lakes’ veteran, was commanding the S.R. Kirby on that ill-fated day. 

Reports say a strong northwest gale out of Duluth, Minnesota, capable of nearly 80 mph winds, reached Lake Superior hammering the two vessels as they continued onward to the Keeweenaw Peninsula. 

With Eagle Harbor, Michigan nearly in sight, the Kirby was torn asunder on May 8, 1916 by a massive wave where it sank to the depths of the Great Lake. 

Only two men survived that day out of the 22-man crew. The captain’s dog also miraculously survived.

"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,” said Second Mate Joseph Mudra. ”I did not see any of the men come up out of the forecastle and while I saw some of them afterwards clinging to bits of wreckage, I believe most of them were caught in the forecastle and were unable to get out.”

Survivor James True, an engineer on the S.R. Kirby, recounted what happened on the day the ship foundered.

“Without warning the boat crumpled up, broke in two, went down and the boilers exploded. As it began to go to pieces, whistles were blown and warnings shouted. Capt. Gerardin took his place on the bridge and stuck to his post until he saw the boat was sinking. As the boat began to break up members of the crew dashed about seeking pieces of timber, life buoys and rafts. The captain dived over the railing and I saw … an English bull terrier follow him. The two were swimming side by side when I last saw them. I jumped into the water and made for the life buoy. When I regained consciousness they were working over me on the steamer Utley. I was taken to Hancock, Michigan.”

Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society Executive Director Bruce Lynn had called this an incredible find. 

For more information on this shipwreck and others visit the society's webpage


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