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The Ironton sunk in 1894. It sits frozen in time deep in Lake Huron's "Shipwreck Alley"

the deck of a wooden schooner vessel where the anchor is still visible near the bow. The forward mast is visible in the photo
NOAA Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, Undersea Vehicles Program UNCW
An anchor rests still attached on the bow of the sunken schooner barge Ironton, lost in a collision in 1894. Today the vessel sits upright and intact, all three masts still standing.

In September of 1894, five sailors lost their lives when a schooner barge, the Ironton, had a catastrophic collision with the steamer Ohio in what was known as Lake Huron’s “Shipwreck Alley.” On Wednesday, Researchers from NOAA, the state of Michigan, and Ocean Exploration Trust announced they found the intact Ironton shipwreck within NOAA's Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

a multi-colored image of a sailboat with three masts
Ocean Exploration Trust/NOAA Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary
Image of the schooner-barge Ironton as it sits on the lake floor today. This image is a point cloud extracted from water column returns from multibeam sonar.

“Discoveries like this are fascinating because they connect people to Michigan’s long history of maritime innovation and commerce,” Sandra Clark, director of the Michigan History Center and co-manager of Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, said in a statement. “The more we discover, the more we understand the lives of the men and women who worked the Great Lakes.”

In 2017, expedition crewsdiscovered the bulk carrierOhio in approximately 300 feet of water, but despite mapping a large area, the location of the Ironton remained a mystery. Several years after crews worked to uncover the location of the Ohio, they armed themselves with research into the weather and wind conditions from the night of the fatal collision between the two vessels, Clark said. Using multibeam sonar imaging and an underwater robot, multiple teams working together were able to uncover the Ironton’s final resting place.

The Ironton is currently resting upright, hundreds of feet below the surface of the cold waters of Lake Huron, which have helped preserve the ship in great detail. Its three masts are still standing, and an anchor, still attached to the ship, rests on the bow.

Two people sit at computers and monitors with underwater images of shipwrecks on the screen
Ocean Exploration Trust/NOAA Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary
Deploying a remotely-operated vehicle (ROV) equipped with high resolution cameras, team members document shipwrecks hundreds of feet beneath the surface of Lake Huron. (Left to right: Dwight Coleman, Ocean Exploration Trust expedition leader, and Jason White, operations field manager with UNC’s Undersea Vehicles Program).

To learn more about the history of the shipwreck, check out this detailed description from NOAA.

The Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary covers 4,300 square-miles, and about 200 shipwrecks are preserved by Lake Huron’s cold waters in and around the sanctuary area. The Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center in Alpena serves as a free education center for the public and is open year round. Visitors to the center can learn more about those 200 shipwrecks, as well as fish, paddle, snorkel, or dive the wrecks in the sanctuary.

While the site of the Ironton is not currently marked by a deep-water mooring buoy, the sanctuary intends to deploy one to mark the location and help divers visit the site safely.

“The discovery illustrates how we can use the past to create a better future,” said Jeff Gray, Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary superintendent. “Using this cutting-edge technology, we have not only located a pristine shipwreck lost for over a century, we are also learning more about one of our nation’s most important natural resources — the Great Lakes. This research will help protect Lake Huron and its rich history.”

The discovery for the Ironton wreck comes after multiple exploration missions in 2017, 2019, and 2021.

National Marine Sanctuary researchers discover lost shipwreck Ironton in Lake Huron

Jodi is Michigan Public's Director of Digital Audiences, leading and developing the station’s overall digital strategy.
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