Listen: Ship Wrecks on Lake Superior

Midday presents a Mainstreet Radio special program to discuss shipwrecks on Lake Superior. Hosted at the Canal Park Maritime Museum in Duluth, Rachel Reabe speaks with guest panelists, including director of The Maritime Museum, an underwater photographer, a Maritime historian, and founder of the Great Lake Shipwreck Preservation Society. Panelists also answer listener questions.

As of 1999, some 350 ships had been swallowed by the icy waters of Lake Superior. Some have still not been discovered.


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[MUSIC PLAYING] RACHEL REABE: Good afternoon and welcome to our special Main Street broadcast from the Corps of Engineers Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center in Duluth. I'm Rachel Reabe. We have a terrific view of Lake Superior from our second floor location just next to the ship channel in the Duluth harbor.

This huge lake stretching almost 400 miles from east to west and 160 miles north to south looks and sometimes acts more like an ocean. During gigantic storms with near-hurricane winds, waves can reach 30 feet high on this lake, and the water remains a chilly 39 degrees year round. Some 350 ships have been swallowed by the icy waters of Lake Superior. We've invited a panel of shipwreck experts to join us this afternoon.

Patrick Labadie is the Director of the Maritime Museum we're broadcasting from. He's also a shipwreck diver and historian. Jerry Eliason has discovered a number of Lake Superior shipwrecks and is an accomplished underwater photographer. Julius Wolff, a retired University professor, is author of Lake Superior Shipwrecks: A Virtual Encyclopedia of Lake Superior Maritime History, and Ken Merryman, who joins us from our Saint Paul studio, is President and founder of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Preservation Society. He also runs a part-time scuba charter business out of Isle Royale. Good afternoon, gentlemen. Welcome to Main Street.

KEN MERRYMAN: Good afternoon.

RACHEL REABE: Listeners, you can join our conversation this afternoon by calling us. If you live in the Twin Cities, you can call us at 651-227-6000. 651-227-6000. If you are outside the Twin Cities, call us at 1-800-242-2828. 1-800-242-2828. Patrick Labadie, you've said the shipwrecks of the Great Lakes are among the best-kept secrets in the Midwest, an incredible store of underwater treasures. What is so significant about these broken ships?

PATRICK LABADIE: Well, I think probably what really stands out is the state of their preservation. There are lots of shipwrecks in all the Great Lakes and in probably all the maritime nations of the world. But we have the peculiar conditions here that contribute to their preservation. So these shipwrecks can be accessed, and they're very well preserved in spite of, sometimes, 200-year antiquity.

RACHEL REABE: Gentlemen, what would you say is the oldest shipwreck in Lake Superior? Any ideas? Dr. Wolff, do you have any idea?

JULIUS WOLFF: The oldest, about 1816, one of the Northwest schooners. That was when the Canadians had this squabble among themselves, the Northwesterners and the Hudson Bayers. And the Hudson Bayers hired themselves a private army to capture what is now Thunder Bay, Fort William, I think. And then they took some of the leading Northwesterners as prisoners down east. And one of the Northwesterners then grabbed a schooner to try to come in and take care of the rest of things, but left in November and never got as far as Whitefish Point.

RACHEL REABE: And has that wreck been discovered?

JULIUS WOLFF: That, I do not know. There have been so many wrecks there that it's hard to say.

RACHEL REABE: What percentage of the wrecks in Superior have been discovered, would you say? Jerry Eliason, any ideas?

JERRY ELIASON: I would say about 3/4.

RACHEL REABE: Have been discovered?

JERRY ELIASON: I would say close to, yeah.

RACHEL REABE: Some were discovered rather easily.

JERRY ELIASON: Right. The shore wrecks, the majority of wrecks on the lake went down by running into shore. And when I say 3/4 of them have been discovered, I don't mean, they've all been identified necessarily. Some of them, there's patches of wrecked wood on the beach and not necessarily identified.

RACHEL REABE: The trouble, I'm sure, the good thing about a shipwreck near shore is it's in shallower water. It's easier to find. What's the bad thing about it?

PATRICK LABADIE: The bad thing is it's usually all broken up from ice, from storm action, and just from exposure to sunlight and air. So they break down very quickly in shallow water.

RACHEL REABE: So we have this beautiful, deep, cold water in Superior, which preserves the shipwrecks, but it also poses an enormous problem in finding them and exploring them, I would assume?

JERRY ELIASON: Yeah, especially the deep water offshore wrecks, those are the ones that remain intact. But those are the ones that are the most difficult to locate.

RACHEL REABE: And even when you do find them, how do you dive wrecks that deep? We talk about the Gunilda off Rossport, Ontario, sitting in 200 feet of water, it's been called the most beautiful shipwreck ever. But how do you get down to it?

JERRY ELIASON: Well, some of the divers now are going to mixed gas diving. So wrecks that are 250 feet and less can be reached by some of the guys who are doing the mixed gas diving. On air, 200 is about the maximum safe limit. But I've been privileged to work with a couple of people, such as Ken Merryman, who's on the line. You're there, right, Ken?

KEN MERRYMAN: Yep, I'm here.

RACHEL REABE: Good afternoon, Ken.

JERRY ELIASON: Yeah, who has a dropdown camera so we can look at ships down to 500 feet if we can find them.

RACHEL REABE: And what's the deepest you've ever gone, Jerry?

JERRY ELIASON: 220 is the deepest I've dove.

RACHEL REABE: And Patrick?

PATRICK LABADIE: About 120. I'm kind of a sissy diver.

RACHEL REABE: I'm with you. And Ken, how about you? How deep have you gone?


RACHEL REABE: Let's talk about some of the problems with diving that deep. I read an article in Jim Marshall's book on Lake Superior shipwrecks, and it was heart-pounding about how difficult, and how arduous, and how dangerous. Jerry, Ken, let's hear some of your stories.

KEN MERRYMAN: Well, the maximum recommended depth that certification agencies will suggest is 130 foot. The most of the deep diving that I did, and I think Jerry did too, was back in the '70s and '80s. Back then, there weren't certification agencies that would even teach you to dive that deep. And so it was kind of an experimental thing.

Nowadays, there's certification agencies that will teach you to do mixed gas diving. And that's the safest way to do that diving in the 200-foot range. The problems you have are narcosis. When you breathe air that has a high pressure, partial pressure of nitrogen, it's intoxicating and it's kind of like being drunk at depth.

So you can imagine, when you don't have all your facilities, trying to decide what to do and read your gauges can be very difficult. And the other thing is bends. The nitrogen dissolves in your bloodstream. And if you come up too fast, it can form bubbles and the bubbles can do damage.

RACHEL REABE: And Jerry, that happened to you in a diving accident?

JERRY ELIASON: Right, yeah. After 25 years, I got sloppy and did have a dive accident 10 years ago.

RACHEL REABE: And did it have something to do with that. nitrogen narcosis? Did your thinking become-- I mean, I'm sure the most dangerous thing is you don't know that your thinking has become confused. Perhaps, you're not realizing it at the time.

JERRY ELIASON: The effect of the deep diving is most like dentist gas. Every time I go to the dentist, and I'm sitting in the chair, and getting the nitrous oxide at the dentist, I equate that to about a 140-foot depth level, the typical dentist gas. So if people have been to the dentist, they'll know what I'm talking about.

Yeah, as far as the dive that I had, my accident, I just got sloppy. I was doing those 200-foot dives a couple of times a day over and over. And you start getting negligent in your planning. Basically, if you plan a dive very, very carefully and have the proper equipment, things go well. But I didn't have quite the right equipment and got sloppy in the planning.

RACHEL REABE: Let's talk about the work of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Preservation Society. Ken, you said that your organization was founded in '96 to repair and maintain shipwrecks. One of your big projects is up at Isle Royale. Tell us about it.

KEN MERRYMAN: Yeah. And let me mention, first, that there's about a dozen founders that took part in founding the Great Lakes Shipwreck Preservation Society. And it kind of grew from the site that we had that these shipwrecks were deteriorating. Most of us had been diving the wrecks for many years. And they were deteriorating and we just didn't know what to do about it.

RACHEL REABE: Deteriorating because of natural causes, or deteriorating because people were all over them, like coral reefs?

KEN MERRYMAN: A little of both. Although, the lake does preserve shipwrecks very well, it's not perfect. Metal fasteners, like nails, especially on the interiors of the ships that we dive at Isle Royale, the fasteners that hold the walls up seem to have a life of about 50 to 70 years. The wood, the soft interior wood, the pine lasts-- it gets spongy after 50 years. Now, if you're talking about oak, like the schooners were made of, that lasts indefinitely. But the steel does rust and, eventually, it weakens and they fall apart.

RACHEL REABE: So you were concerned about the deterioration, and you decided you needed to form a group to look out for the underwater historic sites?

KEN MERRYMAN: Correct. What we did is we simply applied a concept that we have on land, like a historic society, that says, if these are historically significant sites, then you form an organization to maintain them. And we weren't sure-- it was this the first time that concept has ever been applied underwater. And of course, we weren't sure if it was going to work.

And the first project we did was in Two Harbors, Minnesota, on the Samuel P. Ely. That's a schooner that is embedded in the west breakwall. And when the Corps rebuilt the breakwall, the contractors dumped rocks on the deck and it weakened the structure. And we were afraid that the sides would collapse and we'd just have a flat wreck.

So a group of us supported by Pat Labadie and Scott Anfinson, our state archeologist, and a number of other people helped us. And through the ice, we lifted the deck up that had collapsed and put steel rods through the hull. After we finished that, we felt pretty good about what we had done and we decided, well, there's a lot more of this work that needs to be done. And if we could do a project in a national park, that would add a lot of credibility to the concept.

So it took us two years to work through the National Park Service red tape and get permission to work on the America, which is in North Gap at Isle Royale. And mainly, what we're doing there is rebuilding the interior rooms. Similar thing, the walls have started to collapse. And so we're putting the walls back up, putting the bunks in place, hanging the steam pipes that have dropped, basically, making the thing a little more safe, a little more accessible.

RACHEL REABE: But when we're talking about something with historic value, Pat, is there some concern, like if you take some old antique something and think, well, I think I'll paint it, people say, don't touch it. Anything you do to it will diminish the historic value of it. Is that true in shipwrecks, or is it shore it up, reinforce it, or lose it?

PATRICK LABADIE: It's very true in shipwrecks. But Ken and his partners have done a really super job of researching this particular vessel, and they've obtained the original builder's plans and they've been able to replicate the finish of the interior rooms according to the plans. I think, if the rooms had some degree of integrity at all, you probably wouldn't want to fool with it. But they were so badly deteriorated and collapsed that to rebuild the rooms was really very laudable, I think. And it certainly didn't end up compromising the wreck at all.

RACHEL REABE: Dr. Wolff, let's get some of the background on the America. What can you tell us about it? Is it quite a significant shipwreck in Lake Superior?

JULIUS WOLFF: Well, it was literally the lifeblood of the North Shore fishermen for years. It was not an awfully old ship. I think it was about 29 years old when it was lost there in '27. But of course, it was easily accessible and was systematically looted. In fact, I still have a bottle of beer that came off a diver gave me.

RACHEL REABE: Let's talk about this, Ken Merryman, because this is a huge issue that people, when the shipwrecks are accessible, the good thing is divers can experience it. The bad thing is, sometimes, they take everything that's not nailed down and, sometimes, they take those things as well, don't they?

JULIUS WOLFF: It's only too true.

KEN MERRYMAN: Yes, historically, that has been the case. Although, the mentality nowadays is to leave artifacts. And that's one thing that we encourage in our society, is to leave the artifacts. And in the Midwest, the diver etiquette is really pretty good. We have bottles on the Monarch in Isle Royale that have been there for 20, 30 years of heavy diving. And people pick them up, look at them, and set them back down. There's tools in the America still that people haven't taken. Not to say it's 100%, and it only takes a few people that don't follow the etiquette to ruin it. But in general, it's a pretty good case that we've developed here.

RACHEL REABE: And sometimes, we think of vandalism as a relatively recent social ill. But I know the reports on the America, shortly after it sank in 1928, days later, the bell was gone, the searchlight, and the wheel. So they were typing things back in the '20s as well.

JULIUS WOLFF: Well, certainly, just as soon as you get at them.

RACHEL REABE: Ken, so how do you encourage people-- the first thing is trying to encourage them not to take it. The second thing is, though, your group is trying to persuade people to give it back. How is that going?

KEN MERRYMAN: Slow. No, a number of us in the society give shipwreck talks and slide shows. And we always encourage divers to leave artifacts in our talks. But the other part of the plan that needed to be in place was a way to return artifacts that divers took back when the etiquette wasn't so good.

Back in the '70s, or earlier, it was kind of a free for all. People, divers dove wrecks, grabbed whatever they could. Now, a lot of those artifacts are sitting in people's basements and will be lost to the dumps when they pass on or when they get tired of them.

RACHEL REABE: So what are you trying to get them to do?

KEN MERRYMAN: Well, we created a program called PIB, Put It Back. And we worked that out with the State Historic Preservation Office. And the society will act as a go-between and accept artifacts that divers may have. And we'll work to get them either in a museum, if they're of museum quality, or, if not, then we will document them. We put a number on them and then put them back on the wreck site. And that way, if somebody takes them in the future, we have documentation, so that the laws could be enforced.

It also allows future researchers to know what has been restored to the site so it doesn't confuse any kind of historic conclusions they make or conclusions they make about the history of the ship based on replacing something that maybe is in the wrong place.

RACHEL REABE: Our phone lines are open today. The number in the Twin Cities is 651-227-6000. 227-6000. If you are outside the metropolitan area, please call us at 800-242-2828. 1-800-242-2828. Todd is standing by in Maple Grove. Good afternoon, Todd. Welcome to Main Street.

TODD: Yes, good afternoon. Thank you. I have a question for the panel. And I guess, I, first, would like to apologize if it's inappropriate to discuss this type of thing, but I was talking to a person who keeps a boat on Lake Superior and regularly dives out there. And he had mentioned that-- and again, this might be inappropriate-- but are there you know, still the bodies, preserved bodies of unfortunate sailors on any of these wrecks? And if so, how old are they?

RACHEL REABE: Panelists, have you ever heard, Dr. Wolff, of a case of them finding a body on board a shipwreck in Lake Superior?

JULIUS WOLFF: Yes, I don't remember the name of this Twin City diver, but he was quite a photographer. And they were aboard the Canadian Emperor, which was lost, I think, in '47. And 25 or more years later, they pried open a hatch to get into the engine room, and lo and behold, they discovered a body. Apparently, it was that of the second engineer who was just missing. And you could identify the man by his features. His clothing had all eroded away.

RACHEL REABE: And it had been there for how many years?

JULIUS WOLFF: It was in the '20s at the time.

PATRICK LABADIE: Yeah, I think, that was-- it went down in, what, '27, and was found 50 or 60 years later. It isn't entirely uncommon. Human remains are preserved in a lot of vessels in various states, sometimes, reduced to skeletal remains, other times, with much of the soft tissue still intact. It depends on the depth and the penetration of light to the wrecks. And it's a very sensitive issue, needless to say.

Museums and historical societies around the Great Lakes have taken a strong stand against people photographing the bodies and, in particular, using them in any sort of programming or entertainment. And I think all of us have seen films and slideshows where it's been done, unfortunately.

RACHEL REABE: So bodies have been found in shipwrecks on Lake Superior, but not many?

PATRICK LABADIE: That's right.

RACHEL REABE: Bill is in Saint Cloud. Good afternoon, Bill. Welcome to Main Street.

BILL: Hello.

RACHEL REABE: Hello. Go ahead with your question.

BILL: I have a question for Dr. Wolff. I heard some of his lectures on shipwrecks many years ago and wondered if he could share with the audience some of the stories of the shipwrecks along the North Shore where most of the crew was, unfortunately, killed and there were one or two survivors from the wrecks that were able to scale cliffs and get to safety. I'll hang up and listen.

RACHEL REABE: Any thoughts about that, Dr. Wolff?

JULIUS WOLFF: Well, we haven't had many accidents on the shore, first. And secondly, I don't know of any particular instance where everyone was lost. You did lose--

JERRY ELIASON: The Noble, possibly?

JULIUS WOLFF: Well, the Noble is a disappearance, and that's down close to Duluth, supposedly, or at least close to Two Harbors. We've had some other discoveries of that. But aside from that, you usually have had either all rescued or all except one or two rescued. And some of them, of course, the crew suffered, especially in that storm of 1905, where there was heavy snow and freezing weather right after the accident. But eventually, they managed to salvage most people.

RACHEL REABE: We go now to the phones. Warren in Hopkins. Good afternoon, Warren. Welcome to Main Street.

WARREN: Hello?

RACHEL REABE: Yes, hello.

WARREN: Yes, I used to shipwreck dive in the '70s. I drove the America quite a bit. And I was under the impression or I understood that the bow of the America was blown off in order to settle it down into the channel to allow for ships to go through unimpeded. I wonder if that was true. I wondered if that photographer you were talking about, the dead body was Ken Hafner. I'll hang up. Thank you.

RACHEL REABE: Let's ask the first question to Ken Merryman. Was the bow of the America blown off?

KEN MERRYMAN: I'm not sure what the history is.

JULIUS WOLFF: Not that I know of.

KEN MERRYMAN: It may have been taken off by ice. You hear stories about parts of ships that were removed as navigational hazards, but I'm not sure if that one was one of them or not.

RACHEL REABE: Let's go to James in Maple Grove. Good afternoon, James. Welcome to Main Street.

JAMES: Thanks so much. Yes, I've been a diver for 30 some years. I've extensively dove Lake Superior on many occasions, primarily in Isle Royale. Just make a comment as to the bodies. I have personally talked to several divers over the years. I have never experienced it myself. I understand there is five bodies on the Kamloops, which is at the north end of the island. And I believe one of these bodies, how grotesque that may sound, has no head. And there's been many write-ups on many dive books I have read about. And I guess they're still there.

And the park rangers' attitude is, as long as they're left untouched-- I guess they've been photographed by numerous people-- that they will just leave them alone. And if they are untouched, they will remove them. But yes, there are bodies up there and they're well preserved. I've never seen them, but I've heard many stories of them. Diving in Isle Royale is just excellent diving. And I hope the park service, this big controversy that's going on about leaving, keeping the divers and the boaters up there, I hope this will diminish because it's a lovely, beautiful island and a playground for all involved. Thank you very much.

RACHEL REABE: Thank you so much for your call. Jerry Eliason, let's talk about different islands. You were in the Apostle Islands over the weekend searching for a shipwreck. And that really is your passion now, isn't it, finding shipwrecks?

JERRY ELIASON: Right. Yeah, I keep telling myself that, if I can find something or be along on finding something in less than 100 feet, I might dive again. But in the meantime, I've just been doing the shipwreck hunting. I've been blessed with having a partner, the same partner for almost 20 years, Craig Smith. And then, the last several years, I've been working closely with Ken on some shipwreck hunting ventures.

RACHEL REABE: What were you looking for in the Apostles? What were you there doing over the weekend? What boat are you looking for?


RACHEL REABE: Tell me a little bit about the Ontario.

JERRY ELIASON: It was reduced to a barge at the time. It sank. It was coming across from Thunder Bay to Ashland to unload pulpwood. And somewhere off of outer island, yet to be identified exactly, the Ontario went down. The whole crew got off due to our hero, Ernie Ludwig. He actually, just died about ten, 12 years ago. And I wish I could have talked to him before he passed away to get a little better idea exactly where the ship is.

RACHEL REABE: How do you go about researching it? How did you first know that a ship sunk there? Had you just read accounts about it? And then what are your next steps as you try to zero in on the location?

JERRY ELIASON: The first place you always go is Dr. Wolff's book. That tells us where to begin, a date, a time, and some information, where to get started to find a few other things. Certainly, there wasn't enough room in his book to have every newspaper article. But knowing the date and time, you could find the newspaper articles. And then national archives, both in Canada and the US, and marine museums, such as Pat's here store records that are useful in giving clues to where to look.

RACHEL REABE: So then you just narrow it down, narrow it down, narrow it down?

JERRY ELIASON: That's ideally the way it works. But you're out there not diving. When you're out looking for shipwrecks, you're not swimming along the bottom. You can't cover enough territory to make it worth your while. So you're using sonar or remote sensing, predominantly sonar to try and pick up a clue or a hint that it's really there.

RACHEL REABE: You told me it's like mowing the grass.

JERRY ELIASON: Yeah, exactly. You have an area and you just sweep it back and forth, back and forth until, finally, you're done and then left wondering occasionally, did I miss it within that area, or do I go to a new area?

RACHEL REABE: Does it get sort of obsessive, Jerry? Do you think-- I mean, when we talked last week, you said, we're going to find it this weekend, I think, on the Apostle Islands. Do you ever say to yourself, I'm going to give it three more trips and it's over, and then you think, I'm going to give it two more trips and then I'm going to-- does it just get you going?

JERRY ELIASON: There's some of that. But this last weekend, I'd only twice before been as confident in the location we were going to search. And both times before, we found the wrecks. So this time, I was wrong.

RACHEL REABE: But you're going back when?

JERRY ELIASON: As soon as possible.

RACHEL REABE: Pat, you're laughing. Is that what it's like when people are out searching? You just get the fever sort of?

PATRICK LABADIE: Yeah, really, it is. I'm not one that searches for wrecks in general. I let other people find them, and then I follow up and study them. My principal interest is in shipbuilding technology and or 19th century, in particular. But I understand the thrill of the search. And I've been involved in a periphery a few times, and it really is exciting. And yes, it does kind of get obsessive, I think.

RACHEL REABE: You're listening to a special Main Street radio broadcast from Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center in Duluth. I'm Rachel Reabe. We're talking about Lake Superior's treasure trove of shipwrecks. My panel of shipwreck experts include Patrick Labadie, Jerry Eliason, Ken Merryman, and Julius Wolff.

MPR's Main Street radio coverage of rural issues is supported by the Blandin Foundation, committed to strengthening communities through grant-making, leadership training, and convening. We invite you to visit the Main Street website. Go to You'll be able to hear this broadcast as well as other Main Street reports. We'll be back with more of Main Street and a look at Lake Superior's best known shipwreck after the news and weather.


BRUCE CONNER: Many times when people introduce themselves and say that they were they're interested in my work or they flatter me, say, I think your work is wonderful, I have to ask them, what work?

CHRIS ROBERTS: He's a painter, a sculptor, a collage artist, a filmmaker, a photographer, and an artistic loner. I'm Chris Roberts. We'll hear from the subject of the Walker Art Center's latest show, Bruce Conner, on the next Word of Mouth this Friday night at 6:00 PM on Minnesota Public Radio.

GRETA CUNNINGHAM: With news from Minnesota Public Radio, I'm Greta Cunningham. Democrats are giving up their fight to delay a vote on a nuclear test ban treaty. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle says neither he nor President Clinton is willing to make any more concessions to Senate conservatives. Conservatives say the treaty is fatally flawed and should be voted down. Democrats insist such a defeat would send the wrong message to the rest of the world about nuclear testing. The treaty is expected to be voted down.

Jury selection has resumed in the trial of one of the men charged in the death of Matthew Shepard. The gay University of Wyoming student was fatally beaten a year ago. Aaron McKinney could get the death penalty if convicted. A second man, Russell Henderson, has already pleaded guilty in the attack and is serving life behind bars.

The ninth tropical storm of the Atlantic hurricane season has popped up on the Northwestern Caribbean. Tropical storm Irene is 160 miles southwest of Grand Cayman. Its path is uncertain, but one forecaster puts it off the Florida Gulf Coast near Fort Myers in 72 hours.

In regional news, lawyer Michael Ciresi has joined the race for the DFL nomination to challenge incumbent GOP Senator Rod Grams. Ciresi led the state's lawsuit against the tobacco industry. He says he'd be a strong, effective leader and a tireless advocate for Minnesotans. He says Grams's is not.

Governor Ventura's spokesman says an agricultural disaster declaration may be premature. Several Minnesota County boards have asked Ventura to petition the USDA to declare them economic disaster areas because of low commodity prices. The spokesman says the time to decide that would come after seeing what the harvest brings and what relief is coming from Washington.

The forecast for Minnesota this afternoon calls for clear skies statewide, high temperatures mainly in the 40s. Tonight, increasing clouds in the north and west clear to partly cloudy in the south and east. Low temperatures ranging from 30 in the east to around 40 in the west. At this hour, Duluth reports sunshine and 45. It's partly sunny in Rochester and 47, sunny in Saint Cloud and 50. And in the Twin Cities, mostly sunny skies. A temperature of 50 degrees. That's the news update. I'm Greta Cunningham.

RACHEL REABE: Welcome back to this Main Street special on Lake Superior shipwrecks. I'm Rachel Reabe. We're broadcasting live from the Duluth harbor. The water of this huge lake stretches endlessly in front of us. 10% of the world's surface fresh water is in Lake Superior, a deep, cold reservoir that provides a near perfect environment for preserving shipwrecks.

My guests are Jerry Eliason, Patrick Labadie, Ken Merryman and Julius Wolff. Our phone lines are open for your questions and comments. Call us in the Twin Cities at 651-227-6000. If you are outside the Twin Cities, you can call us at 800-252-2828. If I was to ask my guest, which is the most interesting or the most historic shipwreck, I'm sure I would get a variety of answers. But I think all of them would agree that the best known shipwreck in Lake Superior is the Edmund Fitzgerald.

On November 10th, 1975, a 729-foot ore carrier, the Edmund Fitzgerald, went down in one of the worst storms in decades. All 29 crew members lost their lives in the disaster, which was immortalized by songwriter Gordon Lightfoot. Dudley Paquette was on Lake Superior that night, captaining the Wilfried Sykes, another ore carrier. Paquette, a retired ship captain, joins us this afternoon in Duluth. Good afternoon, sir. Welcome to Main Street.


RACHEL REABE: We look out now at Lake Superior, beautiful blue sky. What was it like the night the Fitz sank?

DUDLEY PAQUETTE: How do you describe 25, 30-foot seas? It was quite an experience, of course. It would snow. Blinding snowstorms one minute and, the next minute, you could look up at the blue skies and see these huge 25, 30-foot seas rolling alongside of you. But what I'd like to describe is, to this day, I can't get over the seas, the height of the seas that was passing between Isle Royale and the Canadian mainland. Hard to describe the size of those seas coming down through there.

RACHEL REABE: Have you ever seen anything like that before or since?

DUDLEY PAQUETTE: No, never. And weather was more or less a hobby for me. And I just loved getting the barometer readings every six hours, and drawing my own isobars, and picking out the highs and the lows. And I just loved doing that. And maybe that's why I'm here today.

RACHEL REABE: You were at the dock loading with the Edmund Fitzgerald. You went out on the lake an hour and 40 minutes after he did.

DUDLEY PAQUETTE: That's correct. I was on the west side of one in Superior and the Fitzgerald was on the east one. And he left about an hour and 40 minutes ahead of me. I watched him leave and go out into the lake. There wasn't any sea. There was hardly a ripple in the water. And my decision to take the north shore was something. I was afraid to look like a fool up there all by myself.

RACHEL REABE: Because you took the safe route, you took the cautious route.

DUDLEY PAQUETTE: Yeah. That was my personal opinion. That was the thing to do. I heard the other two fellas talking many, many times.

RACHEL REABE: You're talking about the captain of the Edmund Fitzgerald and the captain of the Arthur Andersen?

DUDLEY PAQUETTE: Right. The National Weather Bureau had predicted way back that the storm front was going to cut Lake Superior in two. Come through the Keweenaw Peninsula, which would have gave us southerly winds on the East half and, of course, Northeast, northerly winds on the west half.

Well, it was a long ways away yet. And I had figured, well, even if they're right, we get to keep on our Peninsula and you're going to get gale force winds from the south. What are you going to do? You're going to have to go down there. And if you get down there and as that front was traveling so fast, that you're going to get trapped down there with a northeaster.

So my officers that night just questioned me up in this big ship, the Wilfred Sykes, 678 feet long, sitting up on the north shore there, but no wind. But by 10:00 PM, 11:00 PM that night, everything broke loose. And I had my hands full in between Isle Royale and the Canadian Coast.

What I did was I went into Thunder Bay and watched the wind come around from the northeast to the north and the northwest and timed myself to get out to Passage Island in the daylight to take a look at the sea conditions, whether I could go down or whether I was going to do.

I got to Passage Island about 3:30 PM in the afternoon. It was daylight, so I could see the conditions of the seas rolling. And I had the wind at 280 and about 60 knots, which would have been right over the stern for me, heading for Whitefish. I proceeded down with the wind right over the stern. But as I looked back, I think I would have stayed because I was taking them from both starboard quarter and the port quarter, and they were meeting midship. And what a display of water. That was an experience.

RACHEL REABE: And what were you hearing on the radio from the captain of the Edmund Fitzgerald?

DUDLEY PAQUETTE: Well, I heard him talking to the Anderson. As we got down there, four or five hours, I heard him tell the Anderson that he's making water in number seven tank. And I heard him-- and the Anderson asked him, well, how are you making out? And he says, well, we're holding our own. I heard all those conversations. | had another ship right behind me. It was US Steel's Roger Blough, who was on the south side of Isle Royale waiting for the winds to switch around.

RACHEL REABE: Did you have a sense of what kind of danger the Edmund Fitzgerald was in?

DUDLEY PAQUETTE: Well, I figured when he's making water in number seven tank, and his mushrooms are gone, and his railing is down, and I knew that he was steering. I knew he was taking these big seas over on the starboard quarter, and the ship had to be-- there had to be movement and they had to be holding on a little bit. That's why, when we've discovered-- how many times it was asked me, what were they doing, what was it like at that last moment when they was breaking up and he was going to start their plunge? Well, I think they just froze. I mean, they were hanging on anyway. And the fact that they weren't able to get to their emergency phone.

RACHEL REABE: So it happened quick when it came at the end.

DUDLEY PAQUETTE: There's been so many estimates and so many theories, but he was underway-- let's say, he was making 14 miles an hour. And of course, you've got to go back. Nobody agrees. Not everybody, all the seafaring men agree with me that she broke on the surface. And if she did break on the surface, she made that plunge in a couple of minutes, that 525 feet that she plunged to the bottom. I saw her pictures at [? NOAA ?] in Fort Pierce that winter, and her stem was 90 degrees like this. So we knew she went down and then she probably settled right back.

RACHEL REABE: So Captain, you hear the conversation between the Arthur Anderson and the Edmund Fitzgerald and, suddenly, there's just nothing from the Edmund Fitzgerald. Did you know then that the ship was down?

DUDLEY PAQUETTE: Well, as the Anderson proceeded southward, of course, he kept asking questions. Did anybody see the Fitzgerald? And calling [? Sue ?] control. And he never he never reported in. It was what we refer to as skip. We could hear everything on FM radio that night. I could hear the tugs in Chicago harbor talking. It was one of those freak instances where--

RACHEL REABE: So if he'd been there, you knew you would have heard him.


RACHEL REABE: So you knew he'd gone down?


RACHEL REABE: Or do you keep thinking there's got to be another explanation, his radios out?

DUDLEY PAQUETTE: Well, yeah. Like anybody else, before we knew it, the Coast Guard [? Sue ?] was on control, and I reported in, and the ball behind me reported in, and I gave him my approximate position. I was about 30 miles off a standard rock. And well, let's look at the chart. I was in 800 feet of water, maybe 900 feet of water. And the sea conditions were-- I'd never seen anything like it in my life. And it was quite a sight. It was quite a sight. As you know, I'm writing a book, and I'm enjoying all these questions you're throwing at me.

RACHEL REABE: We're going to go to the phones because we have more questions for you today. But first, what have we got coming in the ship channel? Patrick, can you see?

PATRICK LABADIE: Yeah, that's one of the excursion boats. The Vista King is coming back into the harbor after a short turn out on the lake. Coming under the bridge.

RACHEL REABE: Do they have to raise the bridge to get an excursion boat in like that?

PATRICK LABADIE: Yes, they do.


PATRICK LABADIE: Not all the way up as they do for large commercial ships, but a half lift.

RACHEL REABE: And we are located right next to the ship channel here at the Maritime Museum in Canal Park. Let's go to the phones. We have Katie from Duluth patiently waiting on the phone. Good afternoon, Katie. Welcome to Main Street.

KATIE: Hi. Thanks for taking my call. And Rachel, you've picked a great day to be in Duluth. My question is, this summer, they did a memorial service for the families of the Edmund Fitzgerald crew members. And it struck me when they did the memorial service that the wreck is very commercialized in Duluth. You can buy Edmund Fitzgerald playing cards, Edmund Fitzgerald toothpick holders.

And they mentioned in the news coverage that they had made the wreck-- I guess, it's a sacred place, like a cemetery and people are limited in what they can do, diving. And I'm wondering, have other wrecks been classified this way? And also, the divers that are on the show, what do you do, as divers, to respect the wrecks as basically burial grounds?

RACHEL REABE: Good questions. And one clarification, the family members are at this point still lobbying the Canadian government for a legal prohibition. They have not received that yet. Are you gentlemen aware of any shipwrecks on Lake Superior with a similar situation where they have made them off-limits?

PATRICK LABADIE: I'm not aware of any.

JERRY ELIASON: I know with some experience, in the Canadian waters, you're not allowed to do any searching for shipwrecks in Canadian waters without a permit from the Ontario government. You need an archaeological permit. And they have very stiff fines and potential consequences, confiscating your boat, and jail time, and everything else, if you search for shipwrecks in Canadian waters without permits.

RACHEL REABE: And the Fitzgerald is in Canadian waters and it's lying 535 feet down. So it would not be an easy shipwreck to get to. How did you feel, though, as divers, as explorers, with the memorial service and the family members asking people to respect their privacy and to treat this as a sacred site, a burial site, which, of course, it is for 29 people?

KEN MERRYMAN: Well, I guess, I don't have any problem with that. I think, especially, this is such a late shipwreck that I think people are very sensitive about it. I think, in general, we talk about shipwrecks as grave sites. Well, I visit a graveyard to respect people that I love, and I think most divers that visit these shipwrecks have actually more respect for the men and women that served on these ships than most people that are just casually acquainted with them.

And I think most divers do visit these sites with respect. And I think this is a real sensitive issue now, especially with divers pushing the frontiers of diving into the 500-foot range. And there have been people-- or there was at least one person or two people that dove the Fitzgerald. And I think you just have to be sensitive about the fact that there are people whose loved ones are on these wrecks.

RACHEL REABE: Captain Paquette, how do you feel about that as a seaman? That you lost friends on the Fitzgerald, you knew the men on the Fitzgerald, you knew the captain, how did you feel about that shipwreck site?

DUDLEY PAQUETTE: Well, there's so many different opinions, I suppose you should leave it at rest where it is. There's so much interest in this, Fitzgerald. And all my travels-- and I traveled extensively in the wintertime-- she's referred to, that's the Titanic of the Great Lakes. And when I'm riding in an airplane and you talk to the person next to you, what did you do for a living? And the minute I tell them what I did, the first thing they ask me is, what do you know about the Fitzgerald?

I just recently flew from Honolulu to Los Angeles, and a lady sitting next to me said, when I told her what I did and what the Fitzgerald, she says, oh, my God, she says, I listened to Gordon Lightfoot's song when I was in high school. So the interest is there. I mean, it's just as alive today as it was 24 years ago next month.

RACHEL REABE: And if you had been the captain of the Edmund Fitzgerald and gone down in Lake Superior, would you have a problem with scuba divers checking out the site?

DUDLEY PAQUETTE: No, I don't think so. Now, that's my personal opinion. I don't think so, no. Let them come down. I talked to these fellows probably known the dive club from Orlando that came down to Whitefish Point and went down and took a look, the Orlando dive club. And I don't know, they looked me up and found me. I was living in Florida in the wintertime.

RACHEL REABE: So you wouldn't mind if they came down. Would you mind if they photographed you?

DUDLEY PAQUETTE: No, I'm speaking for personal-- no, I wouldn't. These divers, they're in a class by themselves. And no, if they took a good picture of me.

RACHEL REABE: I don't know how good it would be. Let's go back to the phones. Dale in Wilmer. Good afternoon, Dale. Welcome to Main Street.



DALE YOCUM: This is, I guess, mainly for Dr. Wolff. My name is Dale Yocum, and you were one of my favorite teachers back around 1960, and I'm glad to see you really doing well. And I wanted to comment, about five years ago, I bought your cassette tape on the shipwrecks. And my main question is we're doing a lot of talking right now on the Edmund Fitzgerald. But isn't the main reason that this is so significant that this has probably been the only ship that's gone down in at least a third of a century compared to some of those big storms back in 1905 and such?

RACHEL REABE: That's a good question. Has there been a real slowdown in shipwrecks on Lake Superior?

JULIUS WOLFF: Yes, there has. There's actually been quite a slowdown ever since the end of the Great Depression. We had an amazing safety record all the way through World War II, surprisingly enough. But ever since then, just a scattering and they become wider and wider apart in recent years.

RACHEL REABE: Now, my research indicates 17 major ships have been lost on Lake Superior in the last 70 years, with 95 fatalities. The most recent shipwreck on Lake Superior with fatalities, was that the Carter Cliff Hall? Is that right?

JULIUS WOLFF: That was a ship fire. And it was very, very unfortunate. Well, let's get back. That was a former oceangoing ship, the raw ore. But it had spent its time running Germany to South America, had been in the tropics. So unbeknownst to the Canadians who bought the ship, only 15 years old, the heat of the tropics had pretty well atrophied the interior liners.

So it was maybe just a small room fire just tore right through. And as a result, the panic, the alarm gong was pushed for only eight seconds, and then it was every person for himself. And as a result, you had four men died in their bunks. Two took a wrong turn in the smoke, entered an area from which there was no escape. So that was extremely unfortunate and the Canadians felt terrible about that situation. But it was the American ship Lamont under Captain Bill Wilson of Duluth, who came on it earlier and made the initial rescues.

RACHEL REABE: A real hero.

JULIUS WOLFF: So he managed to save the vast majority of those crews. They lost six men to the fire. The third had subsequently died in a hospital down around Ann Arbor. But you had an amazing rescue of the remainder.

RACHEL REABE: So some stories of true heroics.


RACHEL REABE: We've talked this afternoon a lot about shipwrecks and bodies. Mostly when people talk about shipwrecks, they're talking about sunken treasure, lots of gold, and jewelry, and gold chains. And do we see any of that in Lake Superior? I know it's been rumored that on the Gunilda, first, they talked about there was $200,000 in gold on board and, now, some people say it's up to $500,000. I don't know if it's growing or if it's just appreciating in value. Have we had some real finds in terms of cargo on these ships?

PATRICK LABADIE: There are a few, Rachel. The steamer comet down near Whitefish Bay has silver bars, silver from the mines up here. But in general--

RACHEL REABE: That have been recovered, Pat?

PATRICK LABADIE: It's been found? No, I don't believe any of it's been recovered. It's in very deep water. It is barely diveable and then at great risk. No, I don't think any has been recovered. There have been things like copper found, and that does have some commercial value. But most of the ships here on the lakes carry things like grain, and iron ore, and coal.

RACHEL REABE: These are workhorses.


RACHEL REABE: Not pirate ships.

PATRICK LABADIE: That's right.

RACHEL REABE: Let's go to the phones. Jane in Minneapolis. Good afternoon. Welcome to Main Street.

JANE: Hi. Thank you. I've got a question about a ship that went down in 1909 called the Adela Shores. It was a freighter and I was doing some research on my family tree and discovered that my grandmother's two cousins went down on the ship. And I've done just preliminary looking into it and was wondering if it was ever located and, if so, where? I find conflicting things that say Whitefish Point, Grand Island, Michigan, it just kind of goes on. I was just wondering if it was located, and I'll hang up and listen.

JULIUS WOLFF: To the best of my knowledge, it's never been located. You did have a small wreckage in the general vicinity of Grand Marais, Michigan. The ship apparently broke up in parts because you had a pilot house floating, a nameplate floating, in the lake. actually, it was a lumber hooker. But in 1909, cargoes were a premium, so it was carrying a cargo of salt when she came north.

But it was a terrific storm. A big steel ship passed her and made Duluth, but badly beat up. But the Shores was never seen after that. And they have it lost somewhere either off the Huron Islands, northeast of Marquette or somewhere between Huron Islands and Grand Island.

RACHEL REABE: Does shipwreck diving continued to increase in popularity? Pat, what would you say to that?

PATRICK LABADIE: Well, I've had a few debates on this subject. My own impression is that the divers are graying. I think that the average diver seems to me older now than 20 years ago, and I think there are fewer of them. It seems to me that the younger men are going to warmer water where it's more exotic and appealing in Mexico and the Caribbean.

RACHEL REABE: Dudley Paquette, Ken Merryman, Jerry Eliason, Patrick Labadie, Julius Wolff, thanks for being with us today. This special Main Street radio broadcast is a production of Minnesota Public Radio. Our engineers are Cliff Bentley and Alan Strickland in Duluth, Randy Johnson in Saint Paul. Our producer is Sara Meyer, site producer, Bob Kelleher. Our executive producer is Mel Sommer.

We'd like to Thank Patrick Labadie and the staff of the Corps of Engineers Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center for making this broadcast from Duluth possible. We invite you to visit the Main Street website. Go to You'll be able to hear this broadcast as well as other Main Street reports.

MPR's Main Street radio coverage of rural issues is supported by the Blandin Foundation, committed to strengthening communities through grant-making, leadership training, and convening. Minnesota Public Radio's Main Street team consists of 12 reporters at MPR bureaus across Minnesota. I'm Rachel Reabe.

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