Searchers locate 153-year-old wreck of 'bad luck' ship in Lake Superior
The Nucleus was reported to have sunk twice before it finally went under a third and final time
It wasn’t a charm, but the third time — a third sinking — is what finally sealed the fate of the Nucleus, a 19th-century Great Lakes sailing ship.
The 144-foot-long barquentine-type ship went down in eastern Lake Superior, off Vermillion Point on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, more than 153 years ago.
And now, wreck hunters announced Wednesday, Feb. 8, that they have found the Nucleus, surprisingly intact, just outside Whitefish Bay in 600 feet of water. It had been carrying iron ore from Marquette, Michigan, when it sank for good on Sept. 14, 1869.
Corey Adkins, spokesperson for the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society, said there weren’t any markings to identify the ship, but there were some conclusive details. Sonar found the wreck to be 144 feet long, exactly the size of the Nucleus — the only ship of that size reported to have sunk in the area. The site was also littered with shovels, an indication of the vessel’s iron ore cargo.
“The crew had to put the cargo in and take the cargo out, and those shovels represent that era,” Adkins said. “People were working with those, and its kind of neat to see that.”
Darryl Ertel Jr., director of marine operations for the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society, first spotted the wreck in 2021 using side-scan sonar — one of 10 anomalies he located that summer. An underwater robot recorded images and confirmed the finding last summer. Photos show the stern and one side intact.
While the wreck is impressively preserved, the career of the Nucleus wasn’t quite so exemplary: It was reported to have sunk twice before it finally went under that third and final time. The Nucleus also crashed into, and sank, the sidewheel steamer S.S. Detroit on Lake Huron in 1854.
The historical society said accounts of the loss of the Nucleus were even more luckless: the vessel sprang a leak, prompting its crew to abandon ship and get in a lifeboat. A passing ship, the S.S. Union, saw them struggling across the lake in a storm, but didn’t go to their aid. Another ship, the schooner Worthington, came along a short time later and rescued them.
The ship’s career was truly ill-fated, Adkins said. The society’s news release about the wreck dubbed it the “Bad Luck Barquentine.”
“From our research, we found 11 incidents. It sprang a leak in Lake Michigan in 1855. In 1858, one of the crew members fell from the mast and died. It just goes on and on,” he said.
Along with the shovels, photos of the wreck site show the ship’s anchor and chains, dinnerware and other debris from life on board the Nucleus. It’s one of the oldest shipwrecks discovered on Lake Superior, and one of the oldest on the Great Lakes.
“This is a pretty significant shipwreck — considering its age, the fact that it is a barquentine, and we can’t overlook the vessel’s checkered past,” Bruce Lynn, executive director of the historical society, said in the news release.