The Shipwrecks of Lake Erie

Walk In Water, Lake Erie's first passenger steamer

By Rebecca L. Ruger

Lake Erie may be the smallest by volume and shallowest of the Great Lakes, and the last to have been discovered, but it’s been doing its best over the past several hundreds of years to make up for these deficiencies. During the war of 1812, Oliver Hazard Perry and his “Don’t Give Up the Ship” motto saw the defeat of a British fleet near Put-in-Bay, Ohio, cutting off critical British supply lines through the Great Lakes, and being considered a pivotal engagement of the war. It was the last time Lake Erie saw battle, but the traffic was about to increase drastically. In the 1840s, Lake Erie and all the Great Lakes became busy highways for moving wheat, corn, lumber, coal, iron ore and thousands of immigrants. Starting in the early 19 th century and lasting more than 100 years, passenger ships were a common sight on the Lake. The steamship, Walk in Water, built in Buffalo in 1818, was Lake Erie’s first passenger steamer, but its success paved the way for hundreds more to be built and put to work. During Prohibition (1919-1933) great amounts of alcohol crossed Lake Erie from our rumrunning friends up in Canada; there is a mansion south of Buffalo, NY with a walkout basement, still complete with smooth sloped concrete in addition to stairs, for easy and fast forwarding of crates of smugglers’ booze.

Atlantic, Great Lakes Steamboat 1848So much of this Lake Erie traffic set sail before the utility of modern radar or radios, which found vessels often caught up in intense gales, consumed by fires, or one-half of a collision, and more often than not, help was not a radio-call away. From an article in the New York Times, 1853: “A violent gale is blowing on Lake Erie ... The schooner Stranger came in this morning and reports seeing a vessel about 12 miles up, 2 miles from the Canada shore, with three men clinging to the masts, which alone were visible above the water– heard their cries and screams...”. This was how news travelled at the time—reports of disasters usually came from sea captains who had made it safely to port, who couldn’t risk their own ship and crew to save another.

The shipping season on Lake Erie is mainly from March to November, and November is always a question mark due to the unpredictable weather. November gales are essentially blizzards on the lake, with waves sometimes as high as 35 feet and blinding squalls. (It was a November gale that took down the 729-foot iron ore carrier Edmund Fitzgerald on nearby Lake Superior over 40 years ago.)

According to the Great Lakes Historical Society, Lake Erie has at least 1,500 shipwrecks, many dating back to the late 1800s and early 1900s. Of course, these are estimates only, as there are only about 270 confirmed sites, all carefully coordinated by several professional divers and groups. While Lake Erie is warmer than the other Great Lakes because of its shallowness (greatest depth 210 ft., average depth 62 ft.), it still suffers a thermocline—a steep temperature gradient in water—which means the temperature can drop as much as 30 degrees Fahrenheit from surface to below. While this can make diving trickier, and more strenuous, it also means the wrecks are better preserved because the water is cold and relatively shallow and salt-free. In short, it’s a shipwreck diver’s paradise—accessible, well-kept ruins await them.

August 19, 1852, the passenger ship, the Atlantic, left Buffalo on her regular run to Detroit, filled with mostly Irish and European immigrants heading west to start their new lives. The Atlantic stopped in Erie, PA, and loaded more passengers, mostly Norwegian immigrants, despite being already full. Numbers are not exact as the pursor took cash and made no records, but estimates say the Atlantic left Erie with at least 600 hundred people crowded on to a ship that should only carry about 200. At around 2 am, now the 20th of August, the Atlantic, in the busy steamer track in the middle of Lake Erie, and in the middle of a misty fog, collided with the steamer Ogdensburg, heading toward Buffalo. The two ships were about the same size and no one, on either ship, was aware of the other’s presence until they collided. Immigrants crowded onto the deck of the Atlantic were dismayed to see part of the Ogdensburg’s bridge towering over them. The Ogdensburg backed away from the pierced Atlantic, and assessing little damage to itself, essentially sailed away, unknowing or uncaring of the water pouring in to the side of the Atlantic. What happened next gives shame to the captain and crew of the Atlantic, who very quickly—without alerting passengers of the great danger—began to lower lifeboats for themselves into the water. You get what you deserve played out, as the crew’s attempt to save themselves ended with their lifeboat hitting the water almost perpendicular and sinking near immediately, drowning all. The Captain, J. Byron Pettey, likewise interested in saving himself, stumbled into another lifeboat, and carelessly so, as to suffer a concussion upon his landing, which had him sitting out the rest of the horror in his own fog.

And it only got uglier from there. One of the Atlantic’s smokestacks crashed onto the deck, injuring or killing more and adding to the terror. Meanwhile the Ogdensburg has stopped again to further assess any damage to itself. They were only two miles away from the Atlantic now, across a calm lake. When their engines were shut down, they could now hear the cries of the passengers from the Atlantic. Perhaps the only smart crew-move of the night had the Ogdensburg returning to offer aid to the Atlantic. They found the Atlantic half submerged by now but managed to pull hundreds of people from either the water or the sinking ship. But they were too late for perhaps as many as 300 souls. The Atlantic rests in 150 feet of water, near Long Point, in Canadian waters.

Lake Erie ShipwreckThe Marquette & Bessemer #2, lost in a violent storm, in Dec 1909, remains one of the greatest mysteries of Lake Erie. This huge steel railroad car ferry, holding at least 30 railroad cars mostly loaded with coal, though a few may have carried steel and castings, left Conneaut Harbor on December the 7th with a crew of 33 and one passenger and sailed directly into a savage storm, with winds to 70 knots, and temperatures that dropped from 40 to 10 degrees in less than 24 hours. It was never seen again. Conflicting reports from both the Canadian side and the American side of Lake Erie have told of people hearing a distress whistle either at 1 am (Dec 8) or between 3 and 5 am that same morning. One account even says the Captain’s wife, in Conneaut, heard its whistle. Possibly the biggest factor of her demise is that the Marquette & Bessemer #2 did not have a stern gate, or an enclosed stern. With the force of the storm and winds, the pumps may have been unable to keep up with the water coming in. Her fate remains a mystery, her carcass never found, though wreckage had washed up on both Canadian and American shores. A few days after the disappearance, when the storm had calmed, some searching did ensue, with one patrol finding a half-submerged lifeboat containing the frozen bodies of 9 crewmen. Other bodies washed ashore at Long Point, Buffalo, and the Niagara River, close to the mighty Niagara Falls. Ten months later, the body of Captain Robert McLeod, was found along the Canadian shoreline. The Marquette & Bessemer #2’s resting place remains unknown. Some reports say that lone passenger, Mr. A. J. Weiss, who was the treasurer for the Keystone Fish Company in Erie, PA, was carrying a leather briefcase of $50,000, to purchase another fishing company for his boss. Other reports claim the ship’s safe held coinage valued today at over $25,000. But this is not what lures experienced divers to still search for the Marquette & Bessemer #2. At over 350 feet long, and with all of today’s equipment available to find such a monster at the bottom of this small Lake, finding this behemoth would be a feather in the crown of any shipwreck diver.

ake Erie ShipwreckMike and Georgann Wachter have been diving in Lake Erie for 40 years, and are directly responsible for the discovery of at least 30 wrecks below the surface. Georgann says Lake Erie has a shipwreck of every type of vessel—schooners, wooden steamers, sidewheel steamers, tugboats, steel freighters, and even a whaleback steamer—and that “In addition, her waters contain the greatest concentration per square mile” of lost ships in the Great Lakes. The husband and wife team have written several “Erie Wrecks” books on the subject, including Erie Wrecks & Lights, Erie Wrecks East, and Erie Wrecks West. Their exhaustive research on the vessels they find has shown “Swift summer storms or impaired crew accounted for many wrecks, especially near Long Point or Pelee Point. These wrecks continue today but most are pleasure craft.”

Georgann adds, “My favorite wreck is a schooner we believe to be the Belle Mitchell in 60 ft. of water in a remote part of Lake Erie.  It is beautifully preserved and has many artifacts including dishes, 2 stoves, and even a large brass bell.”

The Belle Mitchell’s loss was reported in the Newark Daily Advocate Ohio in 1886:

“Cleveland, O., Oct. 22. — There is little doubt of the loss of the schooner Belle Mitchell, with all on board, in the storm last Thursday on Lake Erie. She left Toledo for Buffalo on Wednesday of last week, and has not since been heard from. It is supposed that she was the schooner reported as going to pieces off Erie, Pa. She carried eight men, and Capt. J. T. RUSHO, of Clayton, N.Y., was her master.”

There are more. There are hundreds, likely thousands actually. There’s the Argo, a tank barge which sank while being tugged during a storm, in October 1937, in 40 feet of water off Canada's Pelee Island and may still hold over 100,000 gallons of volatile oil, if it hasn’t been slowly seeping out over the many decades. The Elize A. Turner, the British Lion and Madiera all sank in the same storm in 1877 near Long Point in Northern Lake Erie. The steamer, Erie, sank near Silver Creek NY, taking almost 170 passengers and $200,000 in gold coins down with her, though some coins had later been found washed up on nearby beaches. One of the oldest wrecks, the Anthony Wayne, rests north of Vermillion OH, having taken 38 passengers down with her when two boilers exploded and sank her in 1837. The Dundee, lost in gale-force winds in 1893 and lying at a depth of 68 feet, about 14 miles NW of Cleveland. is a favorite of divers; it sits upright, with much of her hull and decking intact, with some cargo hatches still open. The G. P. Griffith was another passenger steamer, carrying immigrants from Buffalo to Toledo when a fire burned her to the waterline and sank the ship on the 17th of June, 1850, less than 600 feet from shore; many drowned in less than ten feet of water, dragged down by panicked passengers, or the weight of their immigrant moneybelts. It was reported that only 30-40 people survived. Bodies rolled into shore for several weeks thereafter.

"I can hear my granddad's stories of the storms out on Lake Erie, where vessels and cargos and fortunes, and sailors' lives were lost."~ James Taylor, Millworker

Learn more about the shipwrecks of Lake Erie, and the books by Mike and Georgeann Wachter at

More about shipwrecks

This article appeared in the Glassing Magazine September 2017 issue.

1 comment

as I sit here looking out at the whitecaps rolling in I realize Lake Erie is not a lake- but an inland sea!

donald October 19, 2022

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