A recent discovery by a team of researchers has shed light on a tragedy that occurred more than 120 years ago in Lake Huron, off the coast of Michigan.
In 1894, the wooden schooner barge Ironton collided with a heavily loaded wooden freighter named Ohio, leading to the death of five of Ironton’s crew members. While the seven-man crew attempted to escape on a lifeboat, they failed to untie the rope that secured the lifeboat to the sinking vessel, resulting in the loss of five lives.
The Ironton, built in 1873, was a typical vessel that operated on the Great Lakes, transporting essential goods such as coal, lumber, iron ore, and grain. It was capable of carrying more than 48,500 bushels of grain or 1,250 tons of coal and traveled steadily for two decades between ports such as Buffalo and Cleveland. However, on September 26, 1894, tragedy struck when the Ironton collided with Ohio, which had a 12-foot hole in its hull and was heavily loaded with grain. Ohio sank quickly in rough waters, but all 16 of its crew members were able to escape on lifeboats and were rescued by nearby ships.
In contrast, the Ironton sank an hour after the collision, out of sight of the responding vessels, and claimed the lives of five of its crew members, including the captain and mate. The discovery of the wreck by researchers in 2019 has revealed that the vessel remains remarkably intact and upright at the bottom of Lake Huron. The cold water has helped to preserve the vessel, and it was found with the doomed lifeboat still lashed to its stern.
The discovery of the lifeboat has been particularly chilling for researchers, as it serves as a reminder of the dangers that existed on the lake in the past and still exist today. Had the lifeboat been deployed, the loss of life may have been less severe. Jeff Gray, the superintendent of the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, which discovered Ironton along with a group of partners, emphasized the importance of this discovery as a historical reminder.
The exact location of the Ironton’s wreckage remained a mystery for more than 120 years, despite witnesses and contemporaneous accounts describing where it went down. The wreck of Ohio was discovered in 2017, but it was only in 2019 that researchers from the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary set out on a mapping expedition in Lake Huron with the Ocean Exploration Trust, founded by the explorer Robert Ballard, best known for having discovered the Titanic in 1985.
The discovery of the Ironton is a significant moment for historians and maritime archaeologists, shedding light on a tragedy that occurred more than a century ago. The preservation of the vessel and the presence of the lifeboat are reminders of the dangers of navigating the Great Lakes and the importance of safety measures, even in modern times.