Resting more than 300 feet below Lake Superior’s surface, two distinctive ship’s masts rose from the lake’s dark depths.
A six-year search for the Antelope, an 1800s schooner barge, was over. A dedicated trio of shipwreck hunters discovered the nearly intact ship resting in the waters near the Apostle Islands.
The find is remarkable because it’s one of the only wooden schooners found at the bottom of the lake with its masts still standing, said Jerry Eliason, 63, of Scanlon, who found the Antelope, along with Ken Merryman, 67, of Fridley, and Kraig Smith, 63, of Rice Lake, Wis.
Before the ship was discovered earlier in September, it also was one of about 30 wrecks still missing in Lake Superior, he said.
“They’re all pieces of history,” said Merryman, a retired computer engineer who has hunted shipwrecks for more than 40 years. “They all hold information about the maritime history of our region. As someone who discovers this, you get to open a time capsule and see first hand what treasure is there. And you get to solve a mystery at the same time.”
Lake Superior holds onto about 400 shipwrecks, Eliason said. Most of those ships were driven into shore in a fog, a storm or blizzard and are “broken up into bits and pieces and shredded,” he said.
Eliason figures about 80 to 100 ships that have sunk off shore have been found.
Most of the ones that are still missing are ships that sank with all hands on board and there’s very little information about where they came to rest, Eliason said. “So the question is, where do you look?” he said.
Eliason, Merryman and Smith teamed up about 25 years ago. “I had worn out all my other shipwreck hunting friends,” Merryman said. “Shipwreck hunting is boring. … You spend a lot of time doing what we call mowing the lawn — going back and forth, back and forth in a search pattern. It’s good to have friends you can joke and laugh with, otherwise it would be very painful.”
The trio began their search for the Antelope in 2010 in part because they had already found another shipwreck, the Marquette, in about 200 feet of water east of Michigan Island, one of the 21 Apostle Islands in Lake Superior. The Antelope, en route to Duluth from Ashland, Wis., in 1897, also reportedly sank near Michigan Island.
“We already had covered 80 to 100 square miles” in the search for the Marquette, Merryman said. Besides already having covered some of the ground in that area, Merryman said there was some excitement about finding a ship that was assumed to be mostly intact.
Most of the ships on Lake Superior were there to transport iron ore, Eliason said. The dense cargo causes the ship to split open and fall apart during a violent sinking, he said.
But the Antelope, being towed by the steamer Hiram W. Sibley, was loaded with coal, which is naturally buoyant, Eliason said. “It must have fluttered to the bottom, nice and gently,” he said.
The entire Antelope’s crew was taken to safety on the Sibley.
With summer winding to a close, Merryman said his team’s search for the Antelope continued. Aboard Merryman’s 33-foot Owens cruiser, the men headed to the Bayfield area on Sept. 2 in hopes of merely making it to the marina before dark. They didn’t plan to search for the Antelope that evening, but they kept their eyes on the sonar as they passed Michigan Island just in case something popped up.
Merryman was below deck when Eliason spotted a black shadow on the sonar.
“I knew it was an intact wreck,” Eliason said. Odds were it was the Antelope. Two of the three masts rose 90 feet from the lake’s bottom. It wasn’t until the Tuesday after Labor Day that the wind and waves were calm enough that the men could send a camera down through the depths to explore what was there.
The bow cabins were “somewhat intact; the stern cabins were gone, Merryman said. What they saw matched the photos of the Antelope.
As a member of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Preservation Society, “We’ll do what we can to preserve it,” Merryman said.
There’s a wonder in seeing something “that no one has seen in 100 years,” he said. “It’s a puzzle that’s been solved.”