Discovery of the Cyprus’ identity after 100 years of darkness, August 2007

On a quiet Saturday morning in August 2007, the crew of the Society’s R.V. David Boyd calmly swung her helm to make the first pass of what had promised to be a long day of searching using the Boyd’s Marine Sonics sidescan sonar unit out of the port of Grand Marais, Michigan, on Lake Superior’s Shipwreck Coast. Yet, just beginning this second day of searching, crew member Tom Farnquist, operating the digital sidescan sonar, saw a target that was clearly a shipwreck. Tom commented to the others aboard, Chris Sams and Tom Mannesto, “Would you like to see what a shipwreck looks like?”

In a few short minutes, the target began to look more and more like a long, steel freighter, very deep at 460 feet. Further carefully positioned passes with the sonar provided incredibly clear acoustic imagery, showing hatch openings and a debris field among mounds of sea bottom stirred up by the wreck’s impact.

Measurement of the image using computer technology led Shipwreck Society staff to believe it was the D.M. Clemson, mysteriously lost with all hands on December 1, 1908, whereabouts suspected to be in the area. During the following work week, staff conducted historic research, and all signs pointed to the wreck being that of the Clemson. The wreck appeared to be pointed upbound, as was the Clemson’s original route.

But the researchers were in for a surprise.

One week later, a larger crew boarded the David Boyd for a descent on the newly discovered wreck using the Shipwreck Society’s Phantom S4 Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV).
An initial dive was made, very carefully, with Tom Farnquist at the controls of the ROV. The wreck was immediately confirmed as a long, steel ore carrier, presenting many clues as to its identity, lying hard over on its port side, but no name was visible on the bow as historic black and white photos of the Clemson clearly displayed. Mysteriously, there was no sign of her cargo: the Clemson had been carrying coal and there should have been tons of it spread around the bottom near the wreck.

Searchers were baffled; but fortunately, the weather on the lake that day was cooperating, and a second dive was made in late afternoon.

Again, with Tom Farnquist at the controls of the ROV, and plenty of research materials scattered everywhere around the Boyd’s control room, the ROV descended to a depth of 440 feet – objective, try to find the ship’s name on her stern. Farnquist gingerly approached the stern, only to find that underwater currents were putting so much resistance on the ROV’s tether that it was not possible to move further aft. After a long, disappointing time, Farnquist shifted the ROV to investigate more of the debris field lying near the steamer’s port side.

Nearing the end of the dive, Farnquist decided to return to the fantail area one last time – and this time, the tether played out obediently. The ROV slowly circled, reluctantly, and at last allowed the searchers to get a glimpse of some raised brass letters. They could see: S…T….R…but, until the ROV made one, final downward maneuver….wait…U…R…

“CYPRUS! IT’S THE CYPRUS!” gasped all on board, recording one of the more exciting moments in Shipwreck Society wreck site investigations. “No, it can’t be…that’s impossible…what on earth is she doing here…” The words read simply, “Cyprus – Fairport” meaning that her home port was Fairport Harbor, Ohio, on the Lake Erie shore northeast of Cleveland. While staring at the name directly in front of them, it took several moments for the Boyd’s crew to fully absorb what they were seeing. Most on board had expected to see D.M. Clemson.

The Cyprus was reported to be at least 10 miles further north from where she was found. Just 21 days old, on her second trip of the season, she was downbound from Superior, Wisconsin with a cargo of iron ore for Buffalo, NY. Why she was lost is one of the lake’s most persistent mysteries. She was a brand-new ship. Off Deer Park on Friday, October 11, 1907, a moderate gale had sprung up, but from accounts of other ships on the lake that day, nothing that she shouldn’t have been able to handle. However, earlier, the Cyprus had passed the steamer George Stephenson, and its Captain noted that the Cyprus was leaving a red wake, meaning that water was somehow mixing with her iron ore cargo and was either being pumped out or leaking through compromised hull plating.

The Sole Survivor

Second Mate Charles Pitz

Around 7:45 pm, in darkness and rolling seas, the Cyprus suddenly rolled to port, turning turtle and sinking. Four men, a wheelsman, a watchman, the first mate, and her second mate Charles Pitz, managed to board the ship’s emergency life raft originally located behind the pilothouse. For the next six hours, the men hung on.

In frigid, violent seas, they began to encounter breaking waves near the shore. The raft turned over and over four to five times, and all managed to get back aboard. Finally, close to the beach, the raft turned once more, but this time, only one of the frozen, exhausted, men stayed with the raft. Charlie Pitz wasn’t able to climb back on, but he had tied himself to the raft, and held on until he reached shallow water, stumbling literally half-dead to a spot where he collapsed unconscious on the beach.

Pitz would have died of exhaustion and hypothermia in a very short time – but he had landed just one-half mile east of the Deer Park Life-Saving Station! Here is an excerpt from the Deer Park Station’s Wreck Report for October 11:

State of wind and weather: North / High / Raining
State of tide and sea: No tide, sea high
Time of discovery of wreck: 2 am
By whom discovered: Surfman Ocha
Time of arrival of station-crew at wreck: 230 am

Twenty-two men were not as fortunate as Pitz; their bodies washed ashore over the next couple of days. Pitz revived over several hours and assisted in identifying his fellow crew. All had life jackets on bearing the name Cyprus and all but two were eventually found east of the Deer Park Life-Saving Station.

The story of the Cyprus is just beginning to be told. Her story first ran in the Winter 1999 issue of Shipwreck Journal, followed by another story written by Pitz’s great-niece, Capt. Ann Sanborn of the U.S. Maritime Service, also known as the merchant marine. Capt. Sanborn is an Admiralty Attorney, Master Mariner, and Associate Professor at the United States Merchant Marine Academy, Kings Point, NY. She has been notified of the discovery and plans to visit the Shipwreck Museum very soon. She, as well as Great Lakes author Fred Stonehouse, have compiled much information on the Cyprus.

Charlie Pitz went back to sailing immediately and did not openly discuss the loss. He did not list the Cyprus on his sea service resume provided to GLSHS by Capt. Sanborn.

What caused the sinking of the Cyprus? At the time, mariners were suspicious of the new type of Mulholland sliding hatch covers – but Capt. Sanborn explains that building of the Cyprus was interrupted by a serious labor riot in Lorain, Ohio that could well have led to basic construction flaws in the vessel. The Shipwreck Society could be involved in forensic research that may yield clues. As with all truly exciting mysteries, an initial investigation only produces more questions.

During summer 2010, the Shipwreck Society plans to deploy the ROV to further explore and document details which may lead to solving questions raised on the first two dives at this fascinating, inaccessible wreck site.

For example:

Where is her cargo?
Is there visible hull damage from weather stress?
Why is she lying so far away from the location Pitz reported?
Why is she pointed upbound when she was headed downbound?
Where are her lifeboats?
What secrets lie in her extensive debris field?

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