John M. Osborn

John M. Osborn

Two new paintings of the John M. Osborn have been completed by MDOT project artists.  Click on the images below to see these wonderful renditions.

The first is an acrylic of the Osborn as she lies underwater today by Ken Marschall.  Ken finished this painting with input from Society divers, to represent the wreck site, and to show how divers approach this 180-foot deep wreck.

The second is a watercolor by artist Bob McGreevy depicting the Osborn passing the Vermilion Point Life-Saving Station with her two schooner barges in tow.  Our thanks to these talented artists for their efforts.

The close of the 2005 diving season saw the Shipwreck Society’s Underwater Research Team gathering still and video images of the John M. Osborn, an historic shipwreck northwest of Whitefish Point, lying 170 feet below the surface of Lake Superior. The Osborn has been carefully measured by the Society’s Dive Team, led by Steve Ouellette. Artists Ken Marschall, Bob McGreevy, and Principal Investigator Pat Labadie are preparing paintings and drawings of the wreck site.

The Osborn lay undiscovered until 1984, when she was located by divers from lower Michigan searching in concert with the Shipwreck Society. It is only through recent funding from the TEA-21 program of the Michigan Department of Transportation that accurate documentation of this important cultural resource has been able to proceed.

On the warm evening of July 27, 1884 the steam barge John M. Osborn was in heavy fog, nearing Whitefish Point with a load of iron ore from Marquette, Michigan. She was towing two schooner-barges, the George W. Davis and the Thomas Gawn.

Captain Thomas Wilford dutifully sounded the Osborn’s whistle at the required three blasts every two minutes. Fog does strange things at sea – for all of a sudden, Captain Wilford heard an answering blast from another vessel, very close at hand.

In the next moment, the steel prow of the fast Canadian Pacific steamer Alberta came out of the fog like a spectre, headed straight for the Osborn’s starboard side! Both vessels had been traveling faster than practical in poor visibility; both had checked their speed down upon hearing each other’s whistles, but it was too late. The Alberta crashed into the Osborn aft on the starboard side near the boiler room.

People aboard each ship realized the force of the collision had locked the vessels together. Passengers and crew from the doomed Osborn raced to clamber aboard the bow of the Alberta. One of the Alberta’s passengers, a seaman headed to join his own ship at Port Arthur, Ontario, felt confident enough to jump from the safety of the Alberta to rescue an injured Osborn crewman scalded in the engine room as a result of the collision.

His heroic action cost him his life. For just as the rescuer made it into the Osborn’s engine room, the ships separated, and the Osborn instantly dove to the bottom, taking him and three of the Osborn’s crew with her. Survivors were taken by the Alberta to the Soo, and the Osborn’s tows were picked up by another passing steam barge. The story closed with a decision by U.S. District Court in Detroit determining that “both vessels were at fault and that damages shall be divided equally between them.”

John M. Osborn is a significant cultural resource in that it is a classic example of a wooden screw steam-barge in excellent condition. The Osborn was originally built in 1882 as a single-deck lumber hooker, 178 feet in length, 32 foot beam, and 14 foot depth. Her builders, Morley & Hill of Marine City, Michigan, were her first owners and operators. She was sold the following year to investors headed by W.C. Richardson of Ashtabula, Ohio. Over the winter of 1883-1884 the new owners added a second deck, increasing her tonnage from 535 to 710 net tons.

Credit for processing many of the images below is due to Mr. Bill Springer of the Rochester Institute of Technology, Rochester, New York.  As the Osborn’s life on the surface was so brief, historic photographs of this vessel have yet to be found.

All images are copyrighted Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society, 2006 and may not be reproduced without permission.

Captain Thomas Wilford was from Lorain, Ohio.  The Charleston Village Society has done a considerable amount of work researching his family background and career, and has even become involved in restoring his home.  To learn more about Captain Wilford, please visit Charleston Village at:


Administrative: US Weather Bureau Building 400 W. Portage Avenue, Sault Ste Marie, MI 49783 906-635-1742 Toll Free Phone: 800-635-1742
Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum - Whitefish Point 18335 N. Whitefish Point Road, Paradise, MI 49768 888-492-3747 Contact Us