On May 4, 1891, as gale-force winds and waves raged on Lake Superior, the crew of a schooner ship named Atlanta abandoned ship when it sank. The six men and a woman, a cook, clung to their lifeboat for nine hours, fighting at the oars to lead it to the Michigan coast.
As they approached land, according to archive news reports, the lifeboat capsized within sight of a distant rescue patrol, who mistook it for a log that rolled in the turbulent water. Six of the crew managed to climb back into the boat, but it capsized again. Only two men survived.
This month, the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society said the wreck of the Atlanta was found after lying undetected for more than a century in the cold oblivion of the lake’s depths. The announcement revived the story of how Atlanta’s crew members fought for their lives on the world’s largest freshwater lake.
“All of a sudden our cameras were on it,” Bruce Lynn, the executive director of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum in Paradise, Michigan, said in an interview. “We were the first human eyes to look at this since that dramatic moment. I almost jumped off my chair.”
Also bordered by Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Ontario, Canada, Lake Superior has historically been crisscrossed by shipping lanes. The high volume of traffic meant collisions, which meant that hundreds of ships sank, turning the deepest terrain of the lake into a maritime graveyard ripe to be explored.
In 2021, the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society, the nonprofit that operates the museum, had its best season for locating wrecks, Mr. Lynn said, aided by good weather and side-scan sonar, which sends and receives acoustic pulses that help map the seabed and detect submerged objects. It discovered nine shipwrecks, including the Atlanta, the most in any season, after the sonar towed 2,500 miles, said Darryl Ertel, the company’s director of maritime operations.
Hundreds of wrecks are estimated to be in the nearly 32,000-square-mile lake, many of them in the Whitefish Point area of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, which Atlanta crew members were desperately trying to reach in their lifeboat.
Last July, the society’s researchers dragged the sonar across the lake in a grid pattern. They picked up a feature 200 feet deep that they couldn’t immediately identify, and flagged it for future research.
The Atlanta slowly made itself known.
Mr Lynn returned with the crew in August. The weather was calm. They lowered a remote-controlled device into the water. As the camera drifted, a ship came into view, scrollwork glistening in the clear water. (Lake Superior doesn’t have the invasive zebra mussels that cover wrecks in the other Great Lakes.)
The letters on the ship’s name spell ‘Atlanta’.
“It was a target we found before, but we weren’t sure what it was,” said Mr. Lynn. “You never quite know until you see a smoking gun. That nameplate it was. It announced in no uncertain terms, ‘This is what I am.’”
Lake Superior’s shipwrecks are intertwined with history. In 1918, as World War I drew to a close, two minesweepers built in Canada for France sank, killing dozens of sailors. In 1975, the Edmund Fitzgerald, one of the largest freighters on the Great Lakes, sank amid snow with 29 men on board without sending a distress signal, becoming a cultural legend thanks to a haunting ballad by Gordon Lightfoot.
The Atlanta’s voyage was typical of the Industrial Revolution, when schooner ships hauled iron ore and coal across Lake Superior, said Fred Stonehouse, a local historian.
About 550 shipwrecks have been found in the lake, while up to 40 ships are still missing. Their journeys have been documented by officials at locks — the passageways that connect the lakes — and in newspaper reports of ship traffic. “‘Down into a crevice in the lake’ is the expression often seen a century ago,” said Mr. stone house.
Sometimes bodies or wreckage surfaced, he said.
“This is really about solving historical mysteries,” said Mr. stone house.
The discovery of the Atlanta, about 35 miles offshore, intrigued researchers because of the survivors’ firsthand stories. In early May 1891, the Soo Democrat, a weekly newspaper, published a series of reports on the ill-fated voyage and the rescue.
The 172-foot Atlanta, loaded with coal, had departed from Buffalo, NY, to Duluth, Minn. On May 3, 1891, it encountered a light breeze. Overnight, “one of the worst storms raged to engulf the greatest of all lakes,” the Soo Democrat reported. The storm fell on the Atlanta, which was towed, sailed by another ship, the Wilhelm.
The towline broke and the Atlanta began taking in water, which the crew tried to divert with a pump.
At 9:00 a.m. on May 4, the ship was abandoned, with 10 feet of water in the hull. As the storm “raged at its worst,” the crew stayed on the lifeboat for nine hours. About 200 yards from Whitefish Point, the lifeboat capsized within sight of a US Life-Saving Service rescuer, a forerunner of the Coast Guard, who mistook it for a log that rolled in the waves.
All but one of the Atlanta crew shouted back to the lifeboat. After another 100 meters it capsized again.
“This is where the battle for life raged most fiercely,” the newspaper reported.
The rest of the crew bobbed in the water before sinking beneath the waves, the newspaper said. Two of them, identified as John Pickel and “Nellie” Wait, were pulled from the surf “more dead than alive” and were “all that remains to tell the tale of a battle that overshadows fiction in its terrifying detail.”
The Atlanta remains undisturbed. A Michigan law makes it illegal to dig up shipwrecks, but Mr. Lynn said it would also be like looting a cemetery.
“These are like cemeteries,” he said. Finding the Atlanta, he added, “was lucky. There were survivors who can tell us what happened.”