History worth saving: ‘Moonlight’ shipwreck to be protected from scuba looters
by RICK OLIVO
In her day, she was the archetype of the trim, speedy Great Lakes schooner.
Carrying a full set of canvas aloft, with cargos of grain and iron ore, she was a magnificent vision; widely regarded as the biggest, fastest and most beautiful of all the three-masted lakes schooners of the age.
She was the “Moonlight,” a wooden ship in an era of iron men and near-mythic triumph and tragedy on the Great lakes. She is renowned in sea-shanties that recall her grace, beauty and speed, her epic sailing duels with other schooners, racing the wind for home, and she is sadly remembered for her ignominious end, foundering in a fall gale near the Apostle Islands in September of 1903.
Fast-forward 102 years.
On July 30, 2004, shipwreck hunter Jerry Eliason is conducting a systematic searching for the legendary bulk freighter Marquette, which had sunk in the area of Michigan Island.
Instead, in some 240 feet of water, he discovered something he hadn’t even been looking for: the broken remains of the once majestic Moonlight.
Later that year, Bob Olson, Rick Peters and Ken Merryman, divers for the Great Lakes Shipwreck Preservation Society, found the vessel to be an astonishing archaeological treasure trove, amazingly intact after more than a century in the icy, preserving cold waters of Lake Superior. There the divers found the ship’s china, lanterns, anchors and the original steering wheel – all items that are commonly quickly looted from the sunken remains of vessels in shallower, more accessible waters.
“One of the best stories about this ship is how well she is preserved,” said Tamara Thomsen of the Maritime Preservation and Archaeology Program of the Wisconsin Historical Society, which collaborated with the Shipwreck Preservation Society to get the Moonlight listed on the Wisconsin Register of Historic Places as a preliminary to inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.
The State Historic Preservation Review Board of the Wisconsin Historical Society met last week and voted to include the Moonlight shipwreck on the state registry.
“It’s a time capsule,” Thomsen continued. “Everything that went down with her – the items the crew had brought on board – everything is there and it hasn’t been touched; it’s only been dived on by a few divers. For an archaeologist, it’s amazing.”
Thomsen praised the high ethical standards of the ship’s discoverers.
“They could have easily sneaked out there under the noses of the state and taken everything off of it. But because they chose to come forward and actually take the steps to put it on the National Register, it will be a fabulous place for divers and researchers to visit, because everything will still be there,” she said.
And it is history worth saving.
Rewind back to 1874.
The three-masted schooner Moonlight was built in the Milwaukee works of Wolf & Davidson, one of a new class of larger, faster lake schooners that signaled the golden age of sail on the Great Lakes, Thomsen said. She can hold a then-amazing total of 50,000 bushels of grain and could fly enough canvas to make her the fastest ship on the Great Lakes.
“The Moonlight achieved fame and recognition across the lakes as a beautiful sailing ship with fine lines and exceptional speed,” Thomsen said.
The Moonlight was immortalized in the shanty “The Crack Schooner Moonlight,” which celebrated a race between the craft and a similar vessel “Porter,” when both craft put on their full complement of sail and raced to see who could be first to Milwaukee with a full load of grain.
Even as the glory days of sail faded before the irresistible chug-chug-chug of the coal-fired steamboat, the Moonlight continued to do yeoman work as a towed bulk carrier barge, although much faded from the picturesque windjammer she once was.
Her end came as she left Chequamegon Bay laden with 1,400 tons of rich Gogebic Range iron ore, during a lull in a ferocious autumnal gale.
During her 24 years, the Moonlight, like most Great Lakes Schooners of the era, had had any number of narrow scrapes. In 1895, she and her companion barge, Henry A. Kent, ran aground in Lake Superior when their tow, the C.J. Kershaw, burst a steam pipe and lost all power in strong northwesterly winds. The Kershaw was impaled between two large boulders near Chocolay Reef and was pounded to pieces by storm waves, while the Kent and Moonlight were tossed high and dry on the treacherous coast of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Although written off as a total loss, a heroic salvage effort brought both vessels back from the dead, and the Moonlight continued her career until yet another storm proved to be her undoing.
As they left Chequamegon Bay in September of 1903, the crew of the Moonlight could not have known that the storm they thought they had sat out was to return with a vengeance. At the height of the gale, the Moonlight’s tow cable to the steamship Volunteer parted, and in short order, despite the efforts of the Moonlight’s crew to get pumps on line, it was clear the ship was foundering. With great difficulty, the Volunteer circled around and managed to offload the crew, with the decks nearly awash. There, some 12 miles off Michigan Island, the once proud Moonlight slipped below the waves, never again to be seen plying the lakes she had known so well.
The Ashland Daily Press issue of September 15, 1903 ran the story on its front page.
“The schooner Moonlight, which left last Saturday with iron ore, now lies on the bottom of Lake Superior, a short distance from Michigan Island,” The Press succinctly reported.
There was sorrow too, from her former skipper, Dennis Sullivan – the very man who had captained her in her legendary race against the Porter.
“I feel as if I had lost an old friend. There was never a better or truer ship flying the American flag. I remember the feeling I had on the first day the Moonlight went into commission. I would not that day have exchanged places with the president of the United States,” he was quoted as saying in The Daily Press.
According to Thomsen, the circumstances of the Moonlight’s sinking are more than a bit suspicious. Joseph C. Gilchrist, who owned her when she went down, was a ship owner second only to U.S. Steel on the Great Lakes at the time. Most of his ships were self-insured, but for some unfathomable reason in 1903, he had a number of his vessels and cargos heavily insured. Several Gilchrist vessels sank or went aground that year. The John Craig stranded on Simmons Reef. V.S. Swain sank at her dock. The Waverly sank in Lake Huron, followed by the A.A. Parker near Munising, Mich. Then, in short order, the Moonlight and Marquette both went down within a month of each other and both near Michigan Island. The year ended with one more loss, the Steamer Manhattan, which ran aground near Munising and burned.
“In fairness to Mr. Gilchrist, the odds of having a number of losses were pretty good, due to the large number of vessels on his fleet roster,” said Thomsen. “It is also noteworthy that many of the losses were clearly accidental. Still, marine circles were abuzz with talk of Mr. Gilchrist’s amazing bad luck.”
There are few sunken vessels among the hundreds claimed by the Great Lakes who can match the color and interest of the Moonlight, or her glorious record and sad end. There are even fewer who can match her amazing state of preservation. The cold depths of Superior have kept her in an icy, watery state of preservation; even the paint and numbers on her wooden hull remain clearly visible.
“It isn’t the kind of thing that comes along too often,” Thomsen said. “This one is definitely a jewel.”
That is something Shipwreck Preservation Society President Steve Daniel agreed with, noting the treasure trove of artifacts still on the Moonlight.
“A lot of these ships, you don’t see that,” he said. “It’s worth preserving as is.”