Shipwrecks tell of Lake Erie's history

VERMILION About 60 feet below the surface of Lake Erie, two large paddlewheels rise upward from the
MIKE FITZPATRICK
May 24, 2010

VERMILION

About 60 feet below the surface of Lake Erie, two large paddlewheels rise upward from the wreckage of the Anthony B. Wayne, a sidewheel steamer that sank 158 years ago, about six miles off the coast of Vermilion.

A team from the Peachman Lake Erie Shipwreck Research Center is exploring the remains of the steamer to learn more about the ship and the history of the Great Lakes.

The Peachman center is in a small, old house behind the Inland Seas Maritime Museum on Vermilion's lakeshore. If you go inside expecting to see a bunch of James Bond-type gadgets for locating sunken ships, you've come to the wrong house. Instead, you'll find file cabinets, along with some air tanks strewn across the floor.

You'll also meet Carrie Sowden, archaeological director of the center, who is teaming with two Texas A&M graduate students to explore the wreckage of the Anthony B. Wayne.

The Wayne sank shortly after midnight April 28, 1850, after the steamer's boilers exploded. The ship, heading from Sandusky to Buffalo, was carrying 80-100 passengers along with a cargo of wine, whiskey and livestock. About 30 passengers survived.

"I think the shipwrecks are important because they truly tell our story," Sowden said. By "our story," Sowden means the history of the Great Lakes.

The Wayne wreckage was discovered by Tom Kowalczk of Lakeside. He first came across the sunken ship in the fall of 2006 using a sidescan sonar system.

"Some of the detail in the paddlewheel showed up on the screen," Kowalczk said.

A dive to survey the wreck in the spring of 2007 confirmed to Kowalczk he'd found the Wayne.

"We took some preliminary measurements and surveyed and found enough circumstantial data to call it the Anthony Wayne," he said.

Hours of research and searching take place before a wreck is discovered, Kowalczk said.

"You kind of know where they are. You have a general area, but there is no X marks the spot," he said.

David Kelch, an associate professor and extension specialist of The Ohio Sea Grant Program, helped put together an interactive Web site, www.ohioshipwrecks.org, that provides information on 28 shipwreck sites. The site has an interactive map showing the approximate location of other shipwrecks.

"Finding a shipwreck can be like trying to find a needle in a haystack," Kelch said.

Now that the Wayne has been found, Brad Krueger, who is working on his master's degree in Texas A&M's Nautical Archeology program, hopes to learn all he can about the steamer.

"It's one of the earliest examples of a passenger and cargo steamer that we have, probably one of the oldest in Lake Erie," Krueger said.

Krueger, fellow Texas A&M master's candidate Will Moser and Sowden make daily dives to the wreckage site, where they take measurements of the steamer's remains.

The exposed paddle wheels are the most impressive part of the submerged wreck, Krueger said.

"To see these two great structures looming on the bottom and coming into focus ... to see them rising up is impressive," Krueger said.

Krueger, a native of Ann Arbor, Mich., said growing up around the Great Lakes led him to pursue an advanced degree in nautical archeology. He hopes his study of the Wayne will uncover how the steamer was constructed.

"We don't know how the ship was built. There are no blueprints or plans. They weren't constructed by a plan," Krueger said.

Krueger would eventually like to learn more about day-to-day life on the steamer.

"Was it a floating palace? Was it a derelict that people were afraid to get on?" Krueger asked.

No photos of the steamer exist -- only a lithograph that was produced in 1837. The Wayne was 155 feet long, and the paddlewheels were 26 feet high.

Shipwrecks intrigue archeologists, Sowden said, because they offer a snapshot of time.

"It's interesting to think that it had not been seen since 1850," Sowden said.

Investigating the wreckage helps them piece together its history.

"The people that lost stuff on the boat and people who built it, and why it was built and why it was named the Anthony Wayne," she said. "There are so many different questions you can ask and answer, and so many different people involved with one moment in time happening."

The Great Lakes Historical Society operates the Inland Seas museum as well as Peachman center. One of the goals of the historical society is to document Lake Erie shipwrecks, Sowden said.

Locating wreck sites is just one obstacle faced by divers, Kelch said. Once they find the wreck site, a lot of times the ship remains have deteriorated.

"Some of the wrecks around the islands (have) nothing left but a scattering of debris. And some of the wrecks out there are buried under Lord knows how many feet of silt. There are wrecks that will never be found because they are out of sight," Kelch said.

As an example Kelch points to The Adventure, a ship that went down in the back bay of Kelleys Island in October 1903. The Adventure, carrying limestone, went down when its boilers caught fire.

"That shipwreck is only in about 6-8 feet of water. A lot of people go to that wreck because it's easily accessible and you can see it. But a lot of it has been destroyed because of years and years of wave action," Kelch said.

Want to go?

What: Great Lakes Historical Society Inland Seas Maritime Museum

Where: 480 Main St., Vermilion

Phone: 440-967-3467

Open: Daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Price: Adults $6; Children 12 and younger $5; seniors $5; Family Pass

(two adults, two children) $14.