Friday, February 9, 2007

Lake Erie's ghost ship

Divers and archaeologists have been making steady progress uncovering some of the hundreds of shipwrecks littering the bottom of Lake Erie in recent years. They've done it mainly by using side-scan sonar, a device that essentially trails along beside a boat and allows the crew to photograph large swaths of the bottom as they cruise, zamboni-like, back and forth across a large area of water.

But this work has only just begun on Lake Erie, in which the vast majority of wrecks are either unlocated or uncatalogued. Lake Erie's "holy grail" of shipwrecks, the long-lost car ferry Marquette & Bessemer No. 2 (which also happens to be my personal favourite Great Lakes shipwreck story), is one of these long-lost vessels.

On December 9, 1909, the 350-foot car ferry steamed out of Conneaut, Ohio. Strapped to her car deck were thirty rail cars that were, in turn, heavily loaded with coal and steel. Aboard were her thirty-six-member crew, including the captain, Robert McLeod (pictured here) and his brother John, the first mate. The ship was on its way to Port Stanley, on the Canadian side, a fairly routine run in those days.

But this voyage would be anything but routine; when the ferry would have been about halfway across the lake, a vicious winter storm hit, lashing the Marquette & Bessemer No. 2 with gale-force winds, giant waves, and a blizzard that reduced visibility to zero.

What happened next is pure speculation. It is thought the ferry got close to Port Stanley, but couldn't make the harbour because of the high winds. What little evidence exists of that horrible night, which consists mainly of people along the Canadian shore who reported hearing the ship's distress signal, suggests Captain McLeod headed for Rondeau in hopes of finding shelter there. This failed, apparently, because later that night people on the Ohio shore reported hearing the same desperate signal.

In any case, the scene aboard the ferry must have been utterly terrifying as the frigid water flooded over her back deck, which was not designed to take this kind of a pounding, and the crew fought the storm for hours while searching in vain for a safe haven.

They lost that fight. The ferry disappeared, and astonishingly has never been seen since. There are theories as to where it went down: near Long Point, where McLeod might have made his final stand against the storm, off Conneaut and, of course, near its final destination of Port Stanley.

Three days after the accident, an eerie discovery was made about thirty kilometres off Conneaut: a lone lifeboat carrying nine frozen corpses, including one that was laying in the bottom of the boat with some of the others piled on top, as though, in their final moments, they were doing their best to keep the man on the floor warm.

But side-scan and every other search option have so far had no luck finding the Marquette & Bessemer No. 2, leaving the archaeological community mystified. How can such a large ship, full of rail cars, no less, be so hard to find in a lake as shallow as Erie? It's a hundred-year-old mystery that doesn't look any closer to being solved.

Read more about side-scan sonar searches on Lake Erie here.