Remarkably preserved shipwreck from 119 years ago found in Lake Superior
The aged Antelope may have been one of the most venerable vessels on the Great Lakes, but it was living up to its fleet-footed namesake on that October day 119 years ago.
As the two vessels neared Michigan Island, the weather was fair but the wind brisk, the seas choppy. That wouldn’t have troubled most ships — but the Antelope had been launched 36 years earlier, an eternity for a Great Lakes vessel in those days.
Under stress from the punishing waves, the old ship “sprung a leak and the pumps were put at work,” the Duluth News Tribune reported the next day. “Although the crew worked valiantly the pumps were not able to cope with the inrushing water, which rapidly and steadily increased in depth in the hold.
“When it was plain that the Antelope was doomed. ... The crew had time to gather up their effects and these, together with the vessel’s papers and other articles of value that could be moved conveniently, were taken aboard the (Sibley).”
The 187-foot Antelope slipped beneath the waves, not to be seen again — until earlier this month when, thanks to years of work and some good fortune, a group of shipwreck hunters with Northland ties and a string of recent discoveries located the remarkably preserved vessel.
“It’s the most spectacularly intact sail-rigged ship in Lake Superior — two of the three masts are standing with the full rigging,” said Jerry Eliason of Scanlon, who along with Ken Merryman of the Twin Cities and Kraig Smith of Rice Lake, Wis., lowered a camera to explore the wreck last Wednesday. “It’s got the giant woodstock anchors, the bow cabin is intact.”
They had first spotted the wreck on sonar less than a week earlier. The Antelope was a ship the group had been seeking for years, making periodic trips to search the vicinity where the vessel was last reported.
In the end, it was good luck — backed by knowledge from those many previous trips — that led to the discovery.
As they traveled from Ontonagon, Mich., to Bayfield aboard Merryman’s boat, Heyboy, on Sept. 2, they left the sonar running — even though they weren’t actively searching at the time — because they knew they’d be passing through the general area where the Antelope sank.
Sure enough, the ghostly, distinctive form of a schooner showed up on the sonar as they neared Michigan Island.
“It was a lot like winning the lottery after having purchased 10,000 tickets,” Eliason said with a chuckle.
The Antelope was built in 1861 — the same year Abraham Lincoln became president, Eliason noted — as a steamer carrying passengers and freight between Chicago and Buffalo, N.Y.
According to Great Lakes maritime historical records at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, the Antelope caught fire and burned in Buffalo in 1867. It was rebuilt and continued service on the Great Lakes as a steamer.
“Twenty-five or 30 years ago she was one of the cracker jacks, a thing of beauty and an object of pride,” the News Tribune reported the day after the ship sank in 1897.
The Antelope had its main boilers removed when it was converted to a schooner-barge in the 1880s — a somewhat odd changeover at a time when schooners generally were being supplanted by steamers on the lakes.
In its later years it had three masts, cabins near the bow in part to house a donkey boiler to run the windlass, and another set of cabins near the stern. The ship’s wheel, to the extent it was needed while in tow of another vessel, was at the stern as well.
On Oct. 7, 1897, the Antelope carried a cargo of coal from a port on the lower Great Lakes as the Sibley towed it toward Ashland, according to an account of the wreck in James M. Keller’s “The ‘Unholy’ Apostles: Tales of Chequamegon Shipwrecks.”
The plan was to drop the Antelope off in Ashland, with the Sibley continuing on to Duluth. But the old ship’s seams opened up off Michigan Island, the towline was cut and she slipped beneath the waves. All aboard were able to climb aboard the Sibley.
When they reached Duluth, the News Tribune reported, the officers of both ships declined to discuss the sinking — a 19th-century “no comment.”
“Vesselmen that knew the ancient schooner Antelope account for the foundering on the theory that she was in too fast company while in tow of the H.W. Sibley,” the News Tribune reported. “The supposition is that the old schooner could not stand the punishment of the choppy sea, which prevailed yesterday on Lake Superior, while whisked along by the powerful steamer.”
As for the Sibley, it lasted only one more season on the Great Lakes before it was wrecked on Lake Michigan in late 1898.
Eliason, Merryman and Smith all were involved in the well-publicized 2013 discovery of the freighter Henry B. Smith offshore from Marquette, Mich.; and the 2004 discovery of the schooner Moonlight and the 2005 discovery of the steamer Marquette, both near Michigan Island.
The Antelope was known to be “out in the area where we hunted for many years for the Marquette and Moonlight,” Merryman said. “We had basically covered maybe three-quarters of the area that (the Antelope) could be in, in the search for the other two. … It seemed like a likely target.”
Also making the Antelope an appealing target: its cargo.
“What we’ve discovered in finding these deep wrecks is that the cargo that they were carrying really determines how intact they are on the bottom,” Merryman said. “The ships that were carrying iron ore or rails — heavy, dense cargo — tend to get broken or filleted out when they hit the bottom. … The weight of the cargo splits the hull. But ships that were carrying wheat, and coal, and lighter cargoes, tend to stay intact.”
“The Antelope was carrying coal, so we had reason to believe this one could be more intact,” Eliason said.
After committing to look for the Antelope several years ago, the group put in at least a few days of searching with sonar most summers.
This summer, Merryman took his boat on a circumnavigation of Lake Superior, joined by Eliason, Smith and others for various portions of the trip.
During a stop in Ontonagon, they consulted some old lake charts at the local museum to help further pinpoint the search. When plotting the course to Bayfield, they realized they’d be traversing an area of the lake where the Antelope might be resting.
As Merryman tells it: “Jerry was at the helm, and I said, ‘We’re coming up to our search area here, keep an eye on the sonar because we might just hit the thing, and then I went down (below deck) … and he goes, ‘Whoa, look at this.’ And I jumped up and looked — ‘Whoa, that’s a shipwreck all right.’ … We just ran over the Antelope. … It was obvious it was standing upright on the bottom with the masts still standing.”
“The sonar image was good enough that we didn’t have any question that it was a wreck. Ken got some excellent sonar images — you can see the masts,” Eliason said.
The Antelope was on the lakebed in more than 300 feet of water, a few miles from Michigan Island. It was an area the men already had planned to search a few days later. Instead, they were able to return with camera gear to explore the wreck.
Dropping the camera down into the water, they found what Merryman said he believes to be “the most intact schooner (wreck) on Lake Superior. There are others that are intact in Michigan and Huron — but they’re all covered in zebra mussels.”
“Nearly 120 years post-sinking, it’s still in remarkably good shape,” Smith said.
The rear mast is missing; the rear cabins are gone, likely torn off as the ship sank. But two masts remain standing — a rarity — with wire rigging, deadeyes and other components intact. All that rigging made it a challenge to maneuver the camera, Smith said, which got stuck at one point but after much effort was freed.
The forward cabin also is intact. And the Antelope’s wheel and rudder, broken free from the rest of the wreck, are on the lake bottom alongside the ship.
The group may try to return to the Antelope with an underwater remotely operated vehicle that can better maneuver around the wreck. And Merryman said the Antelope is “deeper than I was planning on diving again. (But) I’m cautiously thinking about it.”
Given the depth of the Antelope, a diver would need to undergo a lengthy decompression process for a short amount of time on the bottom.
For Eliason, Merryman and Smith, who have accumulated an impressive roster of shipwreck discoveries and explorations over the years, finding the pristine Antelope was exciting — but also bittersweet.
“It felt good and somewhat sad — this was the last good (undiscovered) shipwreck that had what we considered to be a reasonable location in western Lake Superior,” Merryman said.
“The number of targets with much of a potential for success certainly are dwindling,” Smith said.
When choosing what to search for, the group talks about how “findable” a wreck is — if there was a specific known location where the ship sank; how historically significant a wreck is; and how likely it is that it’ll be intact, and not broken up.
“The Antelope was the last very findable wreck that would be relatively intact and a neat dive — not quite as historic as some of the others … (but) still a very interesting shipwreck,” Merryman said. “The rest of them, you’ve got to grind away for years and cover 100 square miles, and if you’re lucky they’ll be in that. … Now we’re down to those in western Lake Superior. The rest of them are going to be a lot more work to find.”