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Diving into Erie’s sunken Past

BY KEVIN FLOWERS

kevin.flowers@timesnews.com [more details]

Neil Lundell, Captain of the Canadian Sailor, will be leading diving tours in Lake Erie this summer for divers that are interested in exploring ship wrecks. He was photographed at Lake Shore Dive Chaters on May 23. (Jack Hanrahan / Erie Times-News)

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Eric Guerrein and Neil Lundell have seen the submerged pieces of Lake Erie history up close.

There’s the Charles Foster, a three-masted schooner-turned-barge that sank in December 1900 just north of Walnut Creek.

Then there’s the Dean Richmond, a steamer that went down in a violent storm in 1893 and is now buried upside down in 110 feet of water off of North East.

Not far from that wreck is the S.K. Martin, a coal ship that sank during a storm in 1912. Today the vessel lies in about 58 feet of water.

And, finally, there’s the Indiana, which also went down near North East, in 1870. It was carrying a load of paving stone from Buffalo to Cleveland when it sank.

Today, the wrecks represent a part of Lake Erie’s maritime past — and a business opportunity for many residents.

HOW YOU CAN LEARN MORE
Want to learn more about Lake Erie shipwrecks? Here are some sources of information:

  • Erie Maritime Museum, 150 E. Front St. 452-2744
  • Erie County Historical Society, 419 State St. 454-1813
  • Lakeshore Towing, 34 State St., 453-6387. Offers diving charters to local wrecks during summer months.
  • Divers World, 1533 W. Eighth St. 459-3195. Equipment sales; also sells books about Lake Erie shipwrecks.
  • Great Lakes Historical Society, Inland Seas Maritime Museum, 480 Main St., Vermilion, Ohio. (440) 967-3467 or (800) 893-1485.

    — Web Sites

  • http://www.eriewrecks.com
  • http://www.ohioshipwrecks.org
  • http://www.scubaerie.com
  • http://www.boatnerd.com
  • http://www.newwavescuba.com
  • http://www.lakeeriewreckdivers.com

    — Audio

    Listen to Erie Times-News reporter Kevin Flowers’ interview with Michael Wachter, an avid diver and shipwreck historian from Avon, Ohio, and co-author of three books about Lake Erie shipwrecks.
    http://goerie.com/audio/0524shipwreck

    — Interactive Map

    Study an interactive map of Lake Erie shipwrecks.
    http://www.goerie.com/map/shipwrecks

  • Guerrein and Lundell are two of them, now that summer’s almost here.

    Guerrein, 46, is the president of Lakeshore Towing, 34 State St. His company operates charters of Erie-area shipwrecks for divers during the summer months.

    Lundell, 57, is the retired construction supervisor who captains those dive charters.

    “June, July and August are our busy months,” Guerrein said. “What I’m really interested in is showing people the wrecks that are right off of Erie. It’s something to be in water 100 feet deep and see an old schooner sitting there with its masts and crow’s nests looking just like they did the day it went down.”

    Lundell added: “We get a lot of people from Pittsburgh or Buffalo who have never dived these wrecks before. The first time they see the wrecks, it’s phenomenal. They can’t believe there’s ships down there that are so old and still so well-preserved.”

    Just how many ships rest on the bottom of Lake Erie is the matter of much conjecture. About 1,700 is the number offered up most often, even though only 277 have been found and identified. Other historians believe the actual number of shipwrecks is closer to 2,500.

    For the diving enthusiast, historian or simply the curious, Guerrein and Lundell are among a number of sources locally and across the region willing to tell you more about the Lake Erie shipwrecks — or show you one up close.

    Those sources include a new Internet site sponsored by the state of Ohio, www.ohioshipwrecks.org. The state wants the site, which tells the tale of 28 Lake Erie shipwrecks, to attract more divers to the lake’s waters and pique the public’s interest in those vessels lying dormant at the bottom of Lake Erie.

    American history

    (Chris Sigmund / Erie Times-News)

    You’ll find them off the shores of Long Point, Ontario; Buffalo; Erie; Cleveland; Toledo, Ohio; and scores of locations in between.

    Wooden schooners and iron steamers. Bulk freighters, barges and tugboats — many swallowed by the fierce storms on this Great Lake since the mid-1800s.

    David Frew, a professor emeritus at Gannon University and former executive director of the Erie County Historical Society, has spent decades studying Lake Erie’s rich shipwreck history. Frew said that many of the sunken vessels carry with them tales of tragedy, transportation and American industry.

    Frew said the ships tell valuable stories about America’s past and shed light on how merchandise, materials and other goods were commonly transported before the days of airplanes and interstate highways.

    “The track from Buffalo to Detroit was the busiest trade route in the world for about 60 years,” Frew said. “We have quite a history here in these wrecks. The history of shipping in Erie. The history of manufacturing in this country. Some of that history is now underwater.”

    Frew is the author of “The Lake Erie Quadrangle: Waters of Repose.” In that book, he states that 429 reported shipwrecks are in a 2,500-square-mile rectangular area between the U.S. and Canada that includes Erie.

    By comparison, the 25,000 square miles that comprise the famed Bermuda Triangle has only 112 reported disasters, including airplane crashes, Frew wrote.

    “We’ve had some incredible storms on this lake, and when they happen, they’re awesome,” Frew said. “You’ve got to remember, there was no radar then, and you couldn’t really call for help. These days, people click on the Weather Channel and see a storm and say, ‘You’d have to be stupid to be out on the lake.’ But back then, the ship captains often didn’t know where they were.”

    Michael Wachter, an Avon Lake, Ohio, diving and shipwreck enthusiast, said other factors besides weather have contributed to the plethora of Lake Erie shipwrecks.

    Wachter and his wife, Georgann, have written three books documenting the lake’s shipwrecks, their locations and what might have caused the accidents. Wachter said he and other historians have documented about 1,750 shipwrecks, but Wachter said he believes the actual number that occurred is closer to 2,500.

    “This was the original transnational highway. There was heavy ship traffic, so collisions are one reason,” said Wachter, 60 and a diver for nearly 40 years.

    “Weather is another because we get some nasty storms and the lake is very shallow in some spots,” Wachter said. “A third is fire because many (ships) were wooden vessels covered in varnishes and paints that were flammable. The lubricating oils in the early steam engines were also very flammable.

    “And the other is still a problem today — alcohol,” Wachter said. “It wasn’t uncommon for the ship’s captain to have some ale when they were in port, then head back out.”

    Wachter, who has dived on wrecks in all five Great Lakes, the Caribbean and the Mediterranean, said he believes that Lake Erie boasts the best shipwreck diving in the world.

    “The fact that (Lake Erie) is freshwater and it’s cold helps. Most of these ships are wood, and the best way to keep them preserved is in fresh, cold water,” Wachter said. “The metal wrecks also sit there preserved very well in these waters.”

    Guerrein, of Lakeshore Towing, said he has one strict rule for his charter divers — they cannot disturb the shipwrecks visited.

    “We don’t let anyone bring anything back with them on the boat,” Guerrein said.

    ‘A neat little story’
    The government of Wachter’s home state is doing its part to raise shipwreck awareness.

    Ohioshipwrecks.org is sponsored in part by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, and uses photographs, newspaper articles, underwater video and an interactive shipwreck map to help tell shipwreck tales.

    “Every one of these wrecks has such a neat little story to go with it,” Dave Kelch, an Ohio Sea Grant Extension specialist, recently told the Cleveland Plain-Dealer.

    The site includes extensive information about what Frew called “the Holy Grail of Great Lakes shipwrecks” — The Marquette & Bessemer No. 2., a 338-foot steamer that disappeared Dec. 8, 1909, in a vicious storm while transporting railroad cars from Conneaut, Ohio, to Port Stanley, Ontario.

    The wreck cost 34 people their lives. A few days after Marquette & Bessemer No. 2 sank, patrol boats off Erie discovered a lifeboat carrying nine frozen crewmembers.

    Both Frew and Wachter said that vessel’s location has never been pinpointed. Frew said he believes the ship is likely upside down in deep waters “somewhere near Ontario” and will be found soon.

    “There’s a cartel of people who have leads on it, and will probably find it this summer,” Frew predicted.

    Wachter, who has visited the Ohio Web site, said: “I don’t know if it’s the best use of taxpayers’ money, because there are private individuals already doing the same thing. But anything that spurs diver interest is a good thing.”

    Sean Madras, a 34-year-old local diver, agreed.

    Madras, a registered nurse at Saint Vincent Health Center, also works as a part-time towing captain at Lakeshore Towing, Guerrein’s business.

    “Divers spend a lot of time on their computers, and if the site’s informational it will get hits,” Madras said. “We’re always looking for information about good dive places.”

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