Underwater Documentation Project, 2008

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John B. Cowle as she sailed by Bob McGreevy, and her wreck site today, by Ken Marschall. Collage by Chris Winters.

Mapping Superior's Shipwreck Secrets

Story by Chris Winters, as published in Seaway Review

The long-vanished laker John B. Cowle was something of a hoodoo ship. Actually, it was the second link in a chain of unlucky ships, as it played out.

Lying forgotten for 94 years, her bones are spiked into the sandy lakebed 30 fathoms below the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society’s research vessel David Boyd, which steers wide circles above the wreck site. Broken nearly in half, her keel plates jackknifed, the Cowle’s stern section juts some 40 feet higher than the bow.

On the morning of July 12, 1909, dense fog smothered the cold waters off Whitefish Point. Around 5:30 am the upbound Issac M. Scott had roared out of the haze and t-boned the deeply laden Cowle amidships. The Cowle plunged to the lakebed like an anvil, all 11,754 registered gross tons of her disappearing in a sizzling froth of broken hatch covers and quenching boilers. Fourteen unlucky sailors, more than half the crew, went down with her as she was sucked out of this world.

The Issac M. Scott, her maiden voyage ruined, plucked a number of survivors from the icy water and limped back to the Soo. Unlucky seems to be the operative word in this ghost ship saga: Four years later the Scott too steamed into oblivion with all hands on Lake Huron during the Great Storm of 1913.

Onboard the David Boyd, sonar imaging specialist John DeMille taps his pencil on a computer monitor where the ghostly shadow of the Cowle’s forward mast is visible, laid back on the spar deck by her impact with the bottom. He’s peering at a frozen cataclysm, rendered in eerily precise detail by high-resolution digital sonar pictures. Huddled around the flat screen, the crew of the Boyd falls silent. No one has enjoyed so complete a view of the big ship since she met her violent end here 94 years ago on Superior’s so-called "Shipwreck Coast."

The Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society, founded by a group of Upper Peninsula divers and marine enthusiasts in 1978, has evolved into the region’s premier interpreter of Lake Superior shipwreck lore. Their award-winning Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum broke ground on the site of the Whitefish Point Light Station in 1987. In 1995, the Society spearheaded the high-profile recovery effort of the ship’s bell from Gitchee Gumee’s most recent and renowned victim, Edmund Fitzgerald.

In the spring of 2003, GLSHS’ underwater research arm received a Michigan Department of Transportation grant to undertake comprehensive survey work of a cross section of the historic shipwrecks that litter the bottom of Lake Superior around Whitefish Point. The wreck of the John B. Cowle was one site among seven identified by the Society as worthy of investigation. Other targets include the magnificent wooden steamers John M. Osborn (1884), Samuel Mather (1891), and Vienna (1892), the propeller Comet wrecked in 1875, and the A.A. Parker, lost off Grand Marais in 1903.

MarineSonics Technology, Ltd. of White Marsh, Va. sent ex-Navy UDT specialist John DeMille to train the Boyd team on handling the Society’s new custom-crafted sonar outfit. DeMille and Marine Sonics provided hardware and expertise that quested to locate the body of Laci Peterson in San Francisco Bay, and successfully pin pointed bits of wreckage from the space shuttle Columbia scattered over the lakes and reservoirs of northern Texas.

Using high frequency sound instead of light, the stainless steel towfish, which looks very much like a high-tech torpedo, skims past on its tether and digitally images the ruined ships as well as the surrounding bottom with an almost photographic clarity. Steering poles, collapsed hatch covers, capstans and other small details are all easily identifiable.

Bringing all this gee-whiz hardware to bear is only the first component in GLSHS’ overall survey initiative. Executive Director Tom Farnquist approached artist Ken Marschall about creating a series of his signature "tromp l’oeil" (fools the eye) paintings of the underwater sites. Marschall cut his teeth producing photorealistic matte paintings on Hollywood movie sets. A lifelong student of the Titanic, Marschall was engaged to create stunning underwater site paintings in co-operation with Bob Ballard and Woods Hole Oceanographic after the discover of Titanic in 1985.

Native Michigan talent has also been commissioned to begin the process of re-animating the ghost ships as they appeared in better days. Michigan marine artist Bob McGreevy will research and recreate the ships as they looked in life. Pat Labadie, dean of GLSHS’ vessel construction technique and long-time director of the Canal Park Marine Museum at Duluth, was asked to complete precise site mapping, keep tabs on the accumulated images and video, and maintain archaeological records.

The underwater detective work and wreck site re-creation will be used to enhance the Shipwreck Museum’s exhibits and help grow interpretive content as the museum expands into its new building. A capital campaign will add two new wings, effectively doubling the square footage of existing galleries.

Field information from the underwater survey work will be posted as it is accumulated in a dedicated section of the museum’s website (right here) and archived for future video and publishing projects.

Information posted will be updated regularly.  Click on either the bar or thumbnail below for images of each wreck site.

All images are copyrighted Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society, 2008 and may not be reproduced without permission.

This project has been supported in part by funding from the Federal Highway Administration Transportation Enhancement Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) Program and the Michigan Department of Transportation through the Chippewa County Road Commission.