EAGLE HARBOR, Mich. — Twelve miles and four shipwreck-hunting tales from shore, Jerry Eliason slows the motor and his mouth. He pulls off his glasses and gets close to one of several sonar tools surrounding him. The 22-foot boat has reached the “X” he and Kraig Smith have marked, electronically, in Lake Superior.
They believe that some 800 feet below the July morning’s gentle waves is a steel steamer called the Hudson, sunk by frigid gales in 1901 and never seen again. A fish finder offers a clue: the bottom depth is rising — slowly at first, then steeply. “She’s there,” Eliason says, eyeing the hump. “Boy, she comes up off the bottom. Holy crap!”
Eliason and Smith, both 66, smile at one another, then get to work, readying the boat and their makeshift equipment to capture the first images of the Hudson, a ship entombed for more than a century in the depths of North America’s biggest lake. The sun is shining, the wind is mild. But even under perfect conditions, with increasingly helpful equipment, hunting for shipwrecks remains an adventure. Even when you’re Eliason and Smith — some of the most professional, experienced wreck-hunting amateurs around.
Along with friend and fellow searcher Ken Merryman, 70, these men have helped establish the unwritten rules within this Lake Superior subculture. They preserve and document. Never pilfer or grandstand. The divers of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Preservation Society, who consider Merryman the group’s godfather, protect the vessels that shipwreck hunters find. Well-known wrecks, especially ones along the North Shore, were shifting, deteriorating. The nonprofit pins them in place, preserves them. Now, they’re creating 3-D images of the ships so people can view their hawseholes and rudders without donning a drysuit or strapping on a scuba tank.
This aging shipwreck-hunting duo, searching for the Hudson, started as divers. But these days, they’re looking for the Great Lakes’ deepest sunken vessels, the ones hiding in waters too deep to dive.
“We’re going to see something that no one has laid their eyes on in a hundred and … ” Eliason stops, turns to Smith. “Kraig is the one that does the math. If it sunk in 1901 … ”
Smith nods, completes his thought: “In 118 years.”
They drop a pair of cameras — encased in plastic boxes, attached to a row of powerful lights, hooked to a thousand feet of cable — off the back of the boat and into the vastness of Lake Superior. The contraption sinks 100 feet, 250, 400. As Smith unfurls the line, Eliason watches the TV screen they’d be glued to for the next seven hours, anxious to catch a glimpse of a hull, a mast, a rail — anything. It turns hazy blue, then navy, then black. When the cameras reach 700 feet, they switch on the lights.
Before a sunken ship reveals itself in an eerie, green-tinged image taken at the bottom of the lake — its masts in sharp focus, if they’re lucky, its name in clear relief — it appears as geometric shadows on a side-scanner, a hump on a fish-finder. Before that, its history is detailed in a book, a sinking report, a newspaper. A tale told between sailors.
With its epic gales and icy waters, Lake Superior has swallowed hundreds of ships hauling passengers and freight. For decades, many of those wrecks remained mysterious. “Even finding shipwrecks that had been found before was hard,” says Smith, of Rice Lake, Wis. Technology, including sonar that works in the depths of the world’s largest freshwater lake, has given rise to a flurry of new discoveries.
“Depth has nothing to do with it anymore,” says Frederick Stonehouse, author of a dozen books about Great Lakes maritime history, including “Went Missing: Unsolved Great Lakes Shipwreck Mysteries.” “If you look hard enough, you will find it,” he says. “We have the technology, we have the capability.”
Still, some ships are stubborn. But a few shipwreck hunters — their boat modest, their technology makeshift — are determined. “The search for the unknown, that’s what drives them,” Stonehouse says. “They get no income from it. They don’t get a bunch of glory. But they do solve the question.”
Mid-mission, Smith pulls out a sun-bleached copy of “Went Missing” and flips to page 31: the story of the Hudson.
On Sept. 16, 1901, the 288-foot steamer was near the Keweenaw Peninsula carrying tens of thousands of bushels of wheat and flax. “These were the days before mandatory safe load limits,” Stonehouse writes, “and the steamer’s agents had filled her hold with as much cargo as they dared and perhaps a bit more.” The ship, bound for Buffalo, N.Y., was at one point within sight of the Eagle River Lighthouse, battling a gale that eventually overwhelmed the ship, plunging its 24-man crew into the stormy lake.
At first, the vessel’s identity was unknown, Stonehouse reports. Then wreckage began washing ashore, including a spar in the Hudson’s colors — yellow and black. Bodies washed ashore, too, a few with Hudson-inscribed life preservers. But the ship’s final resting place remained a mystery.
Smith and Eliason have made their best guess. A 2-inch-long piece of black tape lies north-south on a grid Eliason, of Cloquet, Minn., drew up on a piece of white board.
Based on books and phone calls, they scouted this slice of lake over several weekends, using a side-scan sonar that emits fan-shaped pulses, forming images of the lake floor. The first images that the sonar grabs are crude. Ship or rock formation? It’s hard to tell. After an early weekend of searching, on the six-hour drive from Michigan back to Minnesota, Eliason processed and corrected the images on his laptop, revealing more clarity. The Hudson — or what the pair hoped was the Hudson — appeared. “We almost turned around and came back,” Eliason says, laughing.
He’s steering the C-Dory, dubbed the “Deep See,” toward the north end of where he believes the Hudson is lying. The camera shows the lake’s bottom and, ahead, nothing. He eyes the coordinates, the fish finder, the sonar — marking the grid with another line, showing the second miss. Pass after pass, they’re creating a pattern. Mowing the lawn, they call it. It’s a little like the classic game of Battleship: a guess at location, a hit or miss. They turn around, guess again.
This time, the lake’s bottom rises slightly, revealing a pocked, textured patch. A ship? Smith flies to the back of the boat, reeling up the cable one turn, another, to get a better look. What looks like a white, porcelain plate juts out of the lake floor, reflecting back the hunters’ lights. More debris, more scouring.
“That scouring is a clue that we’re really close,” Eliason says. Then the bottom turns smooth again. They huddle over the grid, trying to make sense of the passes they’ve made. Smith squints, hiding the tan lines that have formed in the wrinkles around his eyes. He shakes his head, sighs.
“It might be tipped a bit at an angle.”
“We might be paralleling it.”
“I don’t understand how we’re missing it.”
Smith again pulls the piece of black tape off the grid and sticks it 20 degrees to the right. Eliason turns the boat for another pass.
These days, the cameras do the looking. A few hunters or organizations boast high-tech rovers that respond with joystick dexterity. But Smith and Eliason crafted their camera contraption themselves in the offseason. It has fins, but once it’s swimming several hundred feet below the surface, can’t adjust left or right. The battery pack is makeshift, the soldering obvious.
“We got a heckuva deal on this at Menards one day,” Eliason likes to joke.
It’s a poor substitute, in some ways, for the hunters’ eyes. As divers, Smith and Eliason know what it’s like to get so close to a sunken vessel you can touch it, peer into its crevasses, swim sideways to spot the ax marks on its door. It’s strange and awesome to see a ship underwater, where it’s not supposed to be, says Phil Kerber, president of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Preservation Society.
He remembers his first time: falling out the back of the boat, grabbing onto the rope and following it into the darkness. Suddenly, in that darkness a huge metal ship appeared: the S.P. Ely near Two Harbors. Metal everywhere he looked. He reached out and touched it, then swam up and down the ship, exploring its left side, then right, devouring all the air he had. Emerging from the water, he grinned, thinking: “This is the best dive I have ever made, ever.
“All of a sudden, questions — millions of them — pop into your head,” Kerber says. “Why is this here? How did it get here? What’s its name? Why is this thing bent this way and not that way?
“As soon as you get up, you grab anything you can, a book, anything, to absorb all the information you can about how this ship ended up on the bottom of this lake.”
Shipwreck lovers and Lake Superior divers, including Merryman, formed the nonprofit Preservation Society to protect the S.P. Ely, which had been shaken by construction in Agate Bay. The fragile ship’s stern was damaged by boulders, its deck sawed to keep it from collapse. Within five years, the divers worried, “the Ely would be another flat wooden wreck site.”
So they inserted a dozen rods into the ship to keep its sides sturdy and upright. Over the years, they’ve installed a dozen more, Kerber says.
The nonprofit organizes dives of wrecks for experienced divers and young people, including of the Madeira, a schooner barge that sank duing an epic storm in November 1905, inspiring the construction of the Split Rock Lighthouse. Most members are focused on diving shipwrecks, not discovering them, but “every time we have the boat out,” Kerber says, “we have the side-scan sonar running all the time.”
If there are fewer divers these days — and there are — there are even fewer shipwreck hunters.
“It’s a dying activity,” Smith says, drinking coffee brewed with Lake Superior water scooped from the side of the boat. In the early days, there were no computers, no cellphones. Discovering a wreck’s location involved trekking to a library to do research, chatting with fishermen to find out where their nets had been catching. Sometimes it still does. To locate the Judge Hart, a canaller that fell victim to the storied Gales of November in 1942, Smith submitted a data request, nabbing a 400-page, long-sealed sinking report. Shipwreck hunting involves “talking to people and trying to piece things together,” he says.
Young people today expect to find a wreck site instantaneously, they argue, nabbing one after another, like Pokémon Go.
Even today, shipwreck hunting takes patience and a little faith. Smith, Eliason and Merryman once went 13 years without a find. But within that dry spell, Eliason likes to point out, are plenty of good stories. In the front of the boat hangs a quote by sci-fi writer Ursula K. Le Guin: “It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”
Frustrations and celebrations
The camera has settled and is showing nothing. Again. “I’m flabbergasted,” Smith says.
Eliason builds the camera systems, plots the grids and, with his wife, processes the data. He handles the weather and tells the tales. Smith provides the boat, does the math and handles the physical labor — including reeling the camera and its hundreds of feet of cable, a task that takes a half-hour and several rests.
That’s because Eliason, three decades ago, “wrecked” himself, as he puts it. He was diving the John B. Cowle, 215 feet deep near Whitefish Point, when he ran out of air. “I did that deep diving so often I got sloppy at it,” he says. He reached to grab his other regulator but couldn’t get a hold of it. He tried to breathe off his partner’s tank but failed, inhaling water. He had to choose between drowning and getting the bends, the disease that strikes — and sometimes kills — divers who ascend too quickly. He shot to the surface, skipping an hour of decompression time.
Unconscious, he was flown to Milwaukee. “They told my wife and son that when you get here, don’t expect him to be alive,” he says. Once he was awake, they then warned that he would never walk again.
Today, he walks with a cane, tugging at his right leg to bring it into the boat. Gone are the days that he and Smith would ride inflatable boats to wrecks, diving until dark. Gone, too, are the up-at-4 a.m., out ’til 10 p.m. hunts. On this Saturday in July, the pair heads out at 7 a.m. By noon, they’re frustrated. They formulate a plan, and Eliason turns the boat around for another pass, farther south this time. Just as he revs the motor, a bright object appears on the screen.
“We’re seeing wreck!” Eliason hollers. “There it is, there it is!”
Smith scurries to the back of the boat. The camera bobs up, revealing the railing. It moves along the sunken Hudson, raising questions and answers all at once. “I can’t make out if we’re bow or stern,” Eliason says, marking coordinates on his grid. Smith and Eliason watch, adjusting the camera up, then down.
For 90 glorious seconds, the ship is found. Then the camera turns left or the ship turns right and, suddenly, it disappears again. It’ll stay hidden for the rest of the day, pass after pass.
Tomorrow, they’ll locate the wreck, no problem, on the second try. They’ll capture, crystal clear, the name “Hudson” across the stern. They’ll fawn over that stern, hanging from midair. (“It’s rare to just spear in like that but maintain its structural integrity,” Eliason will say.)
But by midafternoon on Saturday, they’re tired and a little cranky and ready to crack a beer.
Says Eliason: “As Kraig always tells his wife: ‘Well, we’ll just have to go back again.’ ”