Erie shipwreck exhibit tells stories of people who went down with the ships
March 26, 2016 12:00 AM
Jeremy S. Bannister
Unidentified “Wreck 14” was discovered in June 2014 in Lake Erie, off Presque Isle.
Jeremy S. Bannister
Maritime researcher David Boughton at a shipwreck site on Presque Isle.
By John Hayes / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
ERIE, Pa. — A morning “hurrah swim” before the tourists arrive is a ritual among lifeguards at Presque Isle State Park. In 2013, as lifeguard Darren Redding chased a fish underwater, he saw the remains of a long-lost vessel.
“He called me right away because he knew I work with [remotely operated underwater vehicles],” said David Boughton, a maritime researcher for the nonprofit Pennsylvania Sea Grant. “As soon as the ROV was lowered into the water we could see anchors crossed at the bow of a schooner, and on the starboard side were tangled wires.”
If you go ...
“Great Lakes Shipwrecks” runs through April 25 at the Tom Ridge Environmental Center, 301 Peninsula Drive, Erie, PA 16505.
Open daily 10 a.m.-6 p.m.
Free admission to center and exhibit. Free parking.
Information: 1-814-833-7424; www.trecpi.org.
Mr. Redding’s accidental discovery of a previously undocumented Lake Erie shipwreck ultimately led to funding of a shipwreck research program and the recent opening of a fascinating nautical exhibit at the Tom Ridge Environmental Center in Erie.
More than archived scraps of wood and iron, “Great Lakes Shipwrecks” provides historical context for stories about the vessels and people who were aboard. Few of the stories have happy endings.
“People don’t normally think of Pennsylvania as a maritime state, but its 76 miles of Lake Erie shoreline were important to the military, industrial and cultural development of the state,” said Ridge Center’s Robb Frederick. “People around here know that without shipping, this town wouldn’t be here.”
European explorers learned that fragile Presque Isle provided a windbreak for the peninsula’s eastern bay, and desperate ship captains escaped tragedy by beaching on its northern and western shores. Some weren’t so lucky.
The exhibit displays wood and iron artifacts from shipwrecks discovered near or on Presque Isle, throughout Lake Erie and from other Great Lakes. A simulated “scatter field” shows the deteriorating state of wrecks researchers are likely to find. Underwater photos and videos are presented with period newspaper accounts, underwater research gear, and stories about shipwreck victims and survivors, as well as panels and artifacts on loan from other Lake Erie maritime archaeological displays and plans for a proposed federal Lake Erie Marine Sanctuary.
PG graphic: Shipwrecks near Presque Isle (Click image for larger version)
The five Great Lakes are believed to hold 8,000 shipwrecks — some estimates range to more than twice that number. About 2,000 are at the bottom of Lake Erie. A 2,500-square-mile area as wide as Erie County and stretching to the U.S.-Canada border — the Lake Erie Quadrangle — is thought to hold more wrecks than the Bermuda Triangle. About 130 shipwrecks have been documented off Erie County’s shores, but Mr. Boughton said three times that many could be there.
A year after Mr. Redding’s find, a group of academic researchers, divers, historians, technicians and administrators were recruited to form the Pennsylvania Archaeological Shipwreck and Survey Team.
“Our proposal was never to retrieve the wrecks,” said Mr. Boughton. “It was to survey those waters using side-scan sonar and other tools, ID their locations, shapes and sizes and, with historical research, archive information on those ships.”
During the exhibit’s Living History feature, visitors brought in possible shipwreck items and their oral histories were recorded. Mr. Boughton said the “show and tell” resulted in two new original finds — one offshore and one on land. Over time, the peninsula has changed. A century ago, said Mr. Boughton, ships caught in November storms ran for the shoreline and beached, but now that debris could be on land.
“People find things and don’t know it’s a shipwreck. They think it’s an old pier,” he said.
The exhibit’s most striking aspect is its storytelling prowess. Many of the tales are tragic.
In December 1909, the railroad car ferry Marquette & Bessemer No. 2 went down off Long Point, Ontario. Five days later one of the ship’s lifeboats was found. Inside were the frozen bodies of nine sailors and one survivor so mentally rattled he stripped off his clothes, jumped out of the rescue boat and died.
Perhaps the most remarkable story recalls the sinking of the New Connecticut, a schooner that capsized in 1833. The crew escaped but a passenger, the captain’s aunt, was trapped in the cabin when the ship went down. Days later it was raised and towed to port. When salvagers righted the ship, the aunt opened a door and collapsed on the deck. She had survived in an air pocket for five days in shoulder-deep water.
John Hayes: 412-263-1991, email@example.com.
To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to
firstname.lastname@example.org and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner.