Historic photo of the “Success” docked
Ohio Life

Shipwrecks of Lake Erie

Our Great Lake holds the remains of hundreds of vessels that disappeared beneath its surface. Today, divers and researchers work to preserve their stories.

The Success sailed the globe for 106 years. It hauled goods and immigrants, held prisoners, and was even the site of one of magician Harry Houdini’s daring escapes. Today, what remains of it rests underwater, just off the Ohio Route 2 exit to Perry Street in Port Clinton.

“The history of it is just so incredible,” says Rich Norgard of Catawba Island, an author who has been researching the ship and its history for more than 50 years. “It was in all these different countries and touched all these different lives.”

Built in 1840 in Burma, the Success started as a trading ship and went on to travel the world. It made several passages from England to Australia and later served as a floating prison, says Norgard, who is working on a book about the ship.

After it was decommissioned as a prison, the Success became a tourist attraction in Australia and then England. Next, Indiana door-to-door salesman David Smith brought the ship to the United States and fabricated a wild backstory about its past as a prison that enthralled those who lined up for blocks to see it.

Smith dressed his wax-figure “crew” in prison uniforms and showed off torture devices that were never used on the boat. An innovative promoter, he took advantage of newspaper articles, advertisements and endorsements from public officials who always got private tours. He held beauty contests and offered weddings aboard the Success, and in 1913 he brought in Houdini to escape from one of the cells while the ship was docked in New York.

The Success met its end on Lake Erie a few decades later. Made from heavy teak wood, the vessel ran ashore while being towed to Port Clinton and was left unmanned. An arsonist who was never caught set the ship ablaze and burned it to the waterline. On the afternoon of July 4, 1946, hundreds of people stood along the shore in Port Clinton and watched as the flames rose.

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The colorful history of the Success creates intrigue for the divers who like to explore what remains of it.

Rod Althaus, owner of New Wave Snorkel & Scuba Center in Port Clinton, is one of them and has dived on the wreck at least 30 times.

“I remember when the lake was down,” he says. “There was a section you could stand on where your chest was out of the water. There are a lot of fish that congregate around it. Big channel cats lay eggs on there. I’ve seen sturgeon off of it. I’ve seen walleye, perch, all kinds of fish.”

The Success is one of hundreds of shipwrecks that lie beneath Lake Erie’s surface. Each is a mystery to the marine archaeologists and divers who search for them, dive on them and examine their remains. For the past 17 years, Carrie Sowden, archaeological director at the National Museum of the Great Lakes in Toledo, has worked with a large network of divers and archaeologists to document and identify shipwrecks across Lake Erie.
      A dive photo of the “Sultan” on the floor of Lake Erie (photo by Jack Papes)

The “Sultan” today rests under 50 feet of water between Cleveland and Euclid. (photo by Jack Papes)

 She works with volunteers from the Maritime Archaeological Survey Team — a nonprofit group of divers from Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and beyond — and the Cleveland Underwater Explorers, a nonprofit group of marine archaeologists, engineers and other experts who look for and study shipwrecks.

“Within our 100 to 150 years that we’re investigating here, there are some major shifts in ship-building technology,” Sowden says. “That, as a historian, is very exciting.”

When CLUE members decide to look for a shipwreck, the first step is to research the boat itself, says David VanZandt, chief archaeologist, co-founder and director of CLUE. They look for detailed descriptions of the ships and try to pinpoint where they sank. Once researchers think they’ve found a possible location, they head out in boats using side-scan sonar and other instruments.

“You do search lanes like you’re cutting the grass,” VanZandt says. “You go back and forth and scan the area. You’re trying to make the search area as small as possible. It’s a big commitment in going and searching and trying to find these things.”

When they find something, the groups will return to dive on the wreck, take measurements of the craft and look for identifying features, Sowden says. If an underwater photographer is available and visibility is good, they will take photographs.

“Every site is a little bit different,” Sowden says. “Sometimes, you’re documenting what’s there when you know the ship and its history. Sometimes you just want to document it to share with other divers.”

There are challenges to diving in Lake Erie. Unlike the warm, clear waters of the Atlantic Ocean in Florida, for example, Lake Erie can be murky because of sediment and silt and is much colder, VanZandt says.

“We consider a good visibility 3 to 5 feet,” he adds. “It takes a little bit of stick-to-itiveness to dive the lake.”

Lake Erie’s cold water preserves the wood much better than wrecks found in saltwater, which is corrosive and contains a type of worm that eats the wood remaining on sunken vessels, Sowden says.

“I’m continually amazed by the state of preservation we have,” she says. “The better preserved things are, the more we can learn about them.”

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One of the most recently discovered Lake Erie shipwrecks, the Lake Serpent sank in 1829 and is believed to be the oldest yet discovered on the lake.

CLUE member Tom Kowalczk found it in 2015 east of the Lake Erie Islands. The ship was built in 1821 in Cleveland as a cargo hauler. True to its name, it had a serpent as a figurehead on its front. In October 1829, it sailed from Cleveland to one of the islands and vanished.

“A few weeks later, two bodies of the crew members are found,” Sowden says. “But that’s basically the end of what’s known. Then it’s sort of lost until Tom finds it.”

One of Sowden’s favorite shipwrecks, the wooden steamboat Anthony B. Wayne, lies north of Vermilion. The ship was built in 1837 in Perrysburg and rebuilt with new boilers and relaunched in 1849. At that time, steamboats were a relatively new technology, she says.

On April 28, 1850, the ship left Sandusky and headed toward Buffalo, New York, with 80 to 100 people and 300 barrels of wine and whiskey. Early the next morning as the boat was passing Vermilion, a boiler exploded. Within 15 minutes, the burning ship sank, taking many of its passengers, some of whom were still in bed, with it.

About 30 people survived. A few, including the captain, made it to shore in lifeboats. Others hung on to a hurricane deck that was blown off the ship and floated in the water until the captain found a schooner and returned to rescue them.
      Illustration of the “Anthony B. Wayne” steamship that sank on Lake Erie (courtesy of the National Museum of the Great Lakes)

On April 28, 1850, the steamship “Anthony B. Wayne” left Sandusky with 80 or more passengers on board and 300 barrels of wine and whiskey. A boiler explosion sank the ship and killed dozens of passengers. (illustration courtesy of the National Museum of the Great Lakes)

Further east along the shoreline between Cleveland and Euclid, the Sultan, a wood brigantine built in 1848 to haul lumber, grain and coal, lies under 50 feet of water. It was carrying a load of grindstones, which VanZandt says remain stacked on the ship’s deck, when it sank during the Civil War.

On Sept. 24, 1864, the ship’s young captain decided to set sail from Cleveland in a storm, despite more experienced mariners warning him to stay in port. In the crashing waves, the ship lurched, took on water and sank.

The captain and crew members who had not already drowned climbed the masts, which remained above water. Those who managed to hang on waited for another ship to rescue them, but none came during the storm. By morning, only the first mate remained and was rescued by two steamboats.

Using research from Sowden, CLUE, MAST and others, Ohio Sea Grant has mapped numerous sites and made an online guide for shipwreck enthusiasts. With a few clicks, visitors can learn about them.  

“There’s this romantic concept of what shipping and shipwrecks are,” Sowden says. “I think what is getting people interested and excited about them are the stories and the concept of the people on board. What we’re talking about and what we’re so excited about are ultimately massive tragedies, but they still hold this mystery and wonder and awe.”  

A map of the location of the four shipwrecks mentioned in this story
Where to Learn More
This Ohio Sea Grant website and these Ohio museums can provide more information about the shipwrecks that have occurred on Lake Erie. 

Shipwrecks & Maritime Tales of the Lake Erie Coastal Ohio Trail
ohioshipwrecks.org

National Museum of the Great Lakes
1701 Front St., Toledo 43605
419/214-5000, nmgl.org

Sandusky Maritime Museum
125 Meigs St., Sandusky 44870
419/624-0274, sanduskymaritime.org

 

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