Shipwrecked off Isle Royale

November 2019

For those who sail on Lake Superior the waters can be a dangerous place. From the French Minesweepers Inkerman and Cerisoles to the famous Edmund Fitzgerald, many ships have been lost in the depths of the lake and while it is not remembered for a tragic loss of life like the before mentioned ships, there is another iconic shipwreck off the coast of Isle Royal that is popular with both shipwreck enthusiasts and divers alike, the S.S. America.

Built by the Detroit Dry Dock Company for Booth Fisheries, the S.S. America was launched on the 2nd of April, 1898 and began its life as a cargo and passenger ship on Lake Superior in 1902. Based in Duluth she’d travel between her home port of Duluth to the Canadian cities of Fort William and Port Arthur with stops on Isle Royal and a number of smaller settlements along the coast. She would continue to do this for twenty-six years until the summer of 1928.

Over the America’s long career the ship had been involved in a number of accidents but had never taken enough damage to sink. This changed in the early morning of June 7th, 1928 as she was leaving Washington Port on Isle Royal. Not long after she departed, the S.S. America hit an underwater reef and she began to take on water. While the crew attempted to beach the wounded ship she hit yet another reef sealing her fate and forcing the captain to order all thirty crew and fifteen passengers to abandon ship. Fortunately for all involved the ship sank slowly allowing everyone to get off safely with parts of the upper deck and wheel house still above the waterline the next morning. Efforts began immediately to refloat or salvage the ship but by 1929 no company had managed to raise the funds and during the winter of that year the ice caused the ship to slip beneath the waves where she’d sit less than a meter from the surface, clearly visible for the next 29 years.

In 1957 diving enthusiasts from Duluth took an interest in the old wreck and for the first time in decades a man, this time in a scuba suit, stood on her decks. The divers found that the ship was remarkably intact with many of the items they found being in good to perfect condition having been preserved in the cold fresh water. There was even reportedly a car in the hold that had been destined for Port Arthur. Unfortunately, this also meant it was easy to take souvenirs from the wreck and over the following years divers removed almost everything from inside the wreck, from dishes to tables. Even the car was taken apart piece by piece.

In 1965 the SS America Salvage Company made plans to raise the ship and turn her into a floating museum in Duluth. This plan was not without opponents as divers protested the plans as she had become one of the most popular diving spots on the lake. This did not deter the company and by October of 1965 the wreck had been repaired to where she could now be raised but due to storms and the risks of moving such a ship in winter it was decided to hold off on raising her until the spring of 1966, but when spring arrived so did disappointment.

Company divers found that during the winter damage had been done to the America’s hull to the point that it was no longer possible to repair and raise her. This would cause the company to give up on the project completely thus dooming the ship to remain underwater forever. In the years following the attempt, rumors circulated that divers had sabotaged the ship so they would not lose their favorite diving spot. These rumors were so widespread that they are now commonly seen as truth in the modern day although nobody has ever admitted to it.

Today, the S.S. America is still a common diving spot with many divers visiting it yearly, although most artifacts have been illegally removed from the ship by divers. The wreck is now seen as a near perfect example of a shallow water wreck and is a good place for first time wreck diving.

In 1996 the Great Lakes Shipwreck Preservation Society (GLSPS) repaired the hull of the aging ship so that she may be preserved for future generations to enjoy and understand Lake Superior’s amazing yet often dangerous past.

Connor Kilgour is a local history enthusiast that has a fascination with the history of Thunder Bay and the Lakehead area

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