A rare boat – one of only 44 of its type ever made – has at long last been identified, after being lost to the depths of Lake Superior for more than a century. Barge 129, a 292-foot (89 meters) Whaleback boat that sank back in 1902, was found last year alongside eight other wrecks – but it’s only now, with the help of a state-of-the-art underwater drone, that the vessel has been confirmed as the last undiscovered whaleback to have sunk on the Great Lakes.
“I’ve looked for this ship for so long because it was a Whaleback,” said Darryl Ertel Jr, Director of Marine Operations at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society (GLSHS), who made the discovery.
“I was pretty excited,” he added. “I couldn’t wait to get the cameras on it.”
Whalebacks – they got their name from their distinctive shape in the water when fully loaded – were a type of cargo steamship, designed by Captain Alexander McDougall in 1880. Born in Scotland, but living in Ontario from the age of 10, McDougall started working on the Great Lakes, shipping cargo from port to port, aged just 17.
But the violent storms that mark the Great Lakes’ unique weather system inspired McDougall to design a new type of ship: one that could carry the most cargo, while also withstanding the worst Lake weather.
The result was a particularly strange-looking vessel: somewhere between a cigar and a banana in shape, with a rounded neck, a spoon-shaped prow, and pointed bows that many at the time compared to the snout of a pig.
“They’re very unusual ships,” Bruce Lynn, executive director for GLSHS, told CNN. “There are a lot of wrecks out there, but some of them have these features, or characteristics, that make us want to find them more,” he said. “This was definitely one of them.”
But even McDougall’s specialized designs couldn’t cope with the worst storms of Lake Superior – and on October 13, 1902, Barge 129 was taken down. It was taking a load of iron ore out towards the Atlantic Ocean, sailing in tow of a larger ship – a steamer, called Maunaloa – but as the seas grew choppier, the tow line eventually broke, leaving Barge 129 at the mercy of the wind and weather.
Maunaloa tried to turn around and reconnect the line, but the two ships were blown into a massive collision, with Maunaloa’s port side anchor ripping into Barge 129’s starboard side, records the GLSHS. The Whaleback crew abandoned ship, escaping onto the Maunaloa just in time to watch Barge 129 sink 200 meters (650 feet) to the bottom of the lake.
And there it stayed, along with thousands of other ships that fell victim to the Great Lakes storms over the years. That is, until 2021, when the Historical Society teamed up with Marine Sonic Technology to explore the depths of Lake Superior.
“When we had the ROV [remotely operated vehicle] on it, you could clearly see the distinctive bow with a part of the towline still in place,” Lynn said. “That was an incredible moment!”
But what they saw was a ship devastated by the storms and water that had originally claimed it. “It’s totally destroyed on the bottom,” Ertel said. “It’s nowhere near intact.”
“It’s at least four to five big pieces and thousands of little pieces,” he continued. “It’s just disintegrated.”
Nevertheless, the Society believes the new discovery is a vital piece of history – one that they hope to soon incorporate into the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum in Michigan.
“A big part of what we do is telling the stories and keeping the history alive of these various shipwrecks that we’re finding,” Lynn told CNN. “It’s not a shipwreck that most people have heard of, even here in the Great Lakes.”
“Finding this unique of a vessel… now gives us this ability to tell its story and history as we go forward.”