Sunken Barge Found on Lake Floor
Covered in zebra mussels, a wooden barge with a clam bucket scoop that sank between Mackinac Island and St. Ignace in a storm more than 50 years ago was found again last week by scientists aboard Pride of Michigan. The barge was discovered by divers in 2000, and then lost again until now. The clamshell scoop on the badge was built by the late Frank Glashaw, Sr. of St. Ignace. His son, Ernie, also of St. Ignace, remembers his father’s story about the sinking of the boat.
The barge sank around 1947, he believes, when he was about seven years old.
At that time, Edison Sault Electrict Company operated both water and electric service in St. Ignace and on Mackinac Island. A new water intake site was needed on the Island and the Sault Ste. Marie-based company mounted Mr. Glashaw’s scooping mechanism onto the barge to dig the underwater trench.
“When they came back, they ended up in a little bit of a storm,” remembers Mr. Glashaw. “As Dad told it, he came out of the cabin of the tugboat and he saw a big wave come along and it hit the front end of that barge and it just took the bottom right out of it. And the barge immediately started down. Dad said he grabbed an ax and he chopped the tow lines so it wouldn’t pull the tugboat down, too.”
His father has registered patents on parts of the machine, said Mr. Glashaw, and he also thinks there may be an eight millimeter movie about it, which he now is looking for. It was air operated, with valves that had to be pushed down by hand.
Charles Feltner of Drummond Island, who wrote the book, “Shipwrecks of the Straits of Mackinac,” does not include the barge in his book under the section of undiscovered wrecks. He told The St. Ignace News he was not aware of the vessel or its sinking. Edison Sault staff on Mackinac Island say no records exist of the incident.
“I would say there are more boats on the bottom that are not recorded than boats we know of,” said Captain Luke Clyburn of the Pride of Michigan. He has been doing Great Lakes research for about 50 years.
Using sonar Wednesday, August 5, after about six hours of searching, scientists believed they had found the barge between Mackinac Island and St. Ignace. They recorded its position and returned in the afternoon, sending a unmanned remote operating vehicle (ROV) down to the site. Viewing the ROV’s cameras through an on-deck computer, the scientists watched the barge and digging apparatus come into view.
“It was quite a thrill for us all,” said Matthew Cook, president of SeaView Systems of Dexter. “You sort of grind away at this sort of thing for years. You have some success sometimes. This was a classic example of how it is meant to go. You start out with some history or an inkling that there is something out there. You do the primary research with a side scan sonar and navigation and hand over the operation, whether it is to diving or an ROV, and tahdah. And then you hand it over to historians.”
Mr. Cook, originally from Australia, has traveled around the world working on ROV projects.
The exact location and depth of the vessel is not being disclosed until state archeologists have a chance to research and document the find.
Readings from the ROV unit measure the barge at 33 feet long and eight feet wide.
“The work was really textbook,” said Jerry Knisley of Hypack at Middleton, Connecticut, a company that has donated the computer software to go with sounding equipment already onboard the vessel. The equipment used is a lower resolution picture than what people see in magazines and television shows about such projects. The lower resolution, he said, offers fewer visible details.
“We took the side scan equipment to a known wreck to get an idea of what the wreck should look like with this equipment in these conditions. Then we went and looked for the wreck, came up with a target, and then we handed the target off and said, ‘We’re done. Tell us what we found.’”
Mr. Cook agreed that testing the equipment on the William Young shipwreck first was the right decision.
“That’s a technique in calibration,” said Mr. Cook. “Different environments all have different pitches. It’s pretty subjective art, the side scan interpretation.”
Back at the St. Ignace Marina Wednesday evening, after reviewing side scans taken earlier in the day, the excitement of the scientists was contagious as they watched the video they had taken of the barge.
“Matthew brings the ROV unit in and drops down the line,” said Mr. Knisley. “We’re watching it on television, live. When it hits the bottom, we look and we don’t see anything. And the way the sonar works, it paints an image like hands on a clock. It’s reaching out a couple of hundred feet and we’re not seeing a thing. Then it turns and it paints the ship.”
“He missed dropping the ROV on the ship by 10 feet,” adds Capt. Clyburn. “That’s how accurate it is.”
“It was exciting,” said Rod Hadash, a volunteer and father of Sea Cadet Emily Hadash.
The video reveals that the clam bucket apparatus remains upright on the deck of the barge.
“I love the fact that this thing is still hanging up in the water like it is ready to work,” said Elliott Smith, science advisor to the research group, called Noble Odyssey Foundation.
The barge was first found about nine years ago by local divers, although they never were able find it again, said Dan Friedhoff, vice president with Straits of Mackinac Underwater Preserve. Mr. Friedhoff gave the scientists the old location coordinates in hopes that they might have time to search the area again for the barge.
The general location of the barge, said Mr. Friedhoff, will offer protection to divers from prevailing westerly winds, making it possible for divers to one day visit the site, even in bad weather. Also, the barge will offer a challenge to divers and require moderately advanced diving skills, he said.
“I think it will be very popular” as a dive site, he said.
Dr. Smith said work Tuesday was taking place east of the Mackinac Bridge as researchers used an echo sounder to produce an image of the Mackinac Channel, the ancient river that once flowed through the Straits, carving a channel through the rock that now lies hidden under the water. Work included crisscrossing the channel, collecting depth information. The process is called lawn mowing, and the team covered 31 miles Tuesday, going back and forth over the channel. Wednesday’s work totaled 29 miles. When the information is integrated with computer software, a threedimensional imagine of the channel is drawn for the scientists.
“When you are doing it,” said Dr. Smith, talking about the depth plotting of the channel, “all you see is the line describing the depth and we’d come to the edge of the channel and there is a sharp break there like a wall, and it goes down more than 250 feet, then back up the other side.”
Also discovered by the scientists was a vent hole in the underwater cave near a submerged waterfall east of Mackinac Island, and an underground spring. The waterfall and cave were earlier discovered by the same group, who have done research in the Straits since 2006.
Also Tuesday, working from a second vessel with Capt. Clyburn was Wayne Lusardi, a maritime archaeologist with the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary and Underwater Preserve in Alpena, and two other divers. The group explored the underwater cave found last fall near the submerged waterfall found in 2006 on the east side of the Island.
Sitting at the back of the cave, a natural vent hole was discovered. It may prove to be a significant find and could indicate the cave was used by those living and traveling in the Straits region more the 6,000 years ago, say the scientists. The cave walls, however, were covered with zebra mussels and the floor with pebbles and sediment. More research is needed to prove human habitation, they agreed.
Eventually, if human occupation is found at the cave site, said Mr. Lusardi, it would be an important discovery aiding in the understanding of where people were living at the time when the lake levels were considerably lower than they are now.
“When I first saw it,” he said, “it was like ‘wow’ this really does have possibilities here.”
The hope is that scientists are going to find concrete evidence of home sites, whether they were temporary camps, burial grounds, or longer term occupation sites that are now submerged in the lakes, said Mr. Lusardi.
“Finding this feature like a cave is a really good starting point to finding such sites,” he said. “It’s actually pretty cool stuff. We just took a preliminary look at it and there is a lot of work yet to be done.”
Over the last many tens of thousands of years, the Great Lakes were formed by glaciers moving and scouring out large depressions. The glaciers were advancing and receding. At the end of the last ice age, said Mr. Lusardi, Lake Huron was considerably different than we know it today. The lake levels seven to eight thousand years ago were much lower than they are now and at times, many hundreds of feet lower in some places. Lake Huron, he said, essentially was a couple of lakes with a land bridge that extended from present-day Alpena over to Ontario.
When people were first introduced to Michigan, he said, the shoreline that they would have walked upon is now considerably beneath the lake levels. This cave may have been a part of the shoreline that early people would have used in some capacity.
Also discovered at the cave site was a cold water spring, said Capt. Clyburn. The information will be turned over to Dr. Smith and Dr. Bopi Biddanda, a Great Lakes research scientist with Grand Valley State University.
Using a smaller vessel, Capt. Clyburn, Lieutenant Kathy Trax, and others will continue exploration in the Straits until fall.
“I have no question that out here are some keys to ancient history for this area,” said Capt. Clyburn. “We just don’t know exactly where to go for it.”