Somewhere out on the vast expanse of Lake Superior, a team of researchers are scanning the icy depths. Using the latest technology, they uncover secrets and solve mysteries that span centuries. But when they stumble across a strange feature hundreds of feet beneath the surface, they discover more than they had bargained for.
Exploring Lake Superior
For years the members of a historical society based in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, have been combing Lake Superior, hoping to uncover relics from the region’s turbulent past. And thanks to the use of side-scan sonar, 2021 was a highly successful season. The experts have finally revealed all the details of one of their most exciting finds yet.
A historic mystery
So what exactly did these modern explorers find lurking at the bottom of the world’s largest freshwater lake? And how long had it been hiding down in the murky depths? As the truth behind the discovery unfolded, a fascinating historic mystery was solved. It shed light on a terrible tragedy of days gone by.
The story began in July 2021 when a team from the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society, or GLSHS, embarked on an expedition out onto Lake Superior. Founded back in 1978 this organization is dedicated to preserving and investigating the rich history of one of North America’s most significant bodies of water. And there is certainly plenty of it to go round.
In fact, since the mid-19th century, sailing ships have regularly traveled the waters of the Great Lakes, carrying cargo and passengers between various destinations in Canada and the United States. But conditions in this part of the world can be treacherous, and not every vessel made it to its final destination intact.
Tragedy on the Great Lakes
Today, it’s believed that as many as 6,000 ships have been lost in the Great Lakes since records began, with almost 600 in Lake Superior alone. And while some of these have been recovered over the years, many remain missing, their ultimate fate still unknown. As a result, a thick air of mystery hangs over the region.
Exploring the darkest depths
With its work, the GLSHS has been attempting to resolve some of these mysteries and shine a light on the history of the Great Lakes. And in order to do so, members embark on regular surveys and sweeps of the lakes, armed with equipment that allows them to peer right into the very deepest waters.
An unknown object
As it turns out, 2021 proved to be a fantastic year for the GLSHS. That summer, a team of researchers were traveling along the surface of Lake Superior, using sonar technology to survey its depths. And at a spot some 35 miles from the Michigan shore, their equipment registered an unknown object around 650 feet down.
Was it the wreck of one of Lake Superior’s legendary lost ships? Or was there something else waiting for them deep beneath the surface? Initially, the researchers were unable to determine the nature of the anomaly. And so, they flagged it with the intention of returning for a closer look.
Remote operated vehicle
Within weeks, the team was back in the same part of Lake Superior, ready to solve the mystery once and for all. Using a remote operated vehicle, or ROV, they were able to capture footage of the anomaly far below. And as they watched, a ghost ship loomed out of the past and appeared before their very eyes.
A ghost ship
As the camera passed by the mysterious object, its true identity soon became clear. From the distinctive shape of the bow and anchor to the wheel half-buried in sand, this was undeniably a sunken ship — but which one? On this occasion, GLSHS researchers did not have to wait too long to find out.
The wreck of the Atlanta
Moments later, the camera focused in on the side of the ship, revealing the identity of the mystery vessel beyond any doubt. Speaking to The New York Times in March 2022, the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum’s Bruce Lynn explained, “You never quite know until you see a smoking gun.” In this case, it was a name-board that read “Atlanta.”
A rare find
“It’s rare that we find a shipwreck that so clearly announces what it is and the name-board of the Atlanta really stands out,” Lynn said in an official statement dated March 2022. But what was the story of this vessel? And how was it lost? On camera, it looks perfectly preserved, almost as if it sank mere weeks ago. But in Lake Superior, appearances can be deceiving.
In fact, the cold temperatures in Lake Superior create the ideal conditions for preserving objects such as shipwrecks. And while colonies of zebra mussels can often obscure underwater sites elsewhere in the Great Lakes, this invasive species does not thrive here. As a result, the graveyard of the Atlanta remains remarkably untouched.
"These are like grave sites"
But should researchers even touch the eerie remains of the wreck? Speaking to The New York Times, Lynn said that it would be disrespectful to interfere with the wreck in any way. He said, “These are like grave sites.” He should know. Over the years, a large number of wrecks have been discovered off Whitefish Point. And many of them, as the researchers discovered, have stories that are just as grim as that of the Atlanta.
The Edmund Fitzgerald
Take, for example, the Edmund Fitzgerald, a cavernous freighter which once traveled between Duluth and the industrial cities of Michigan and Ohio. On November 10, 1975, the ship was caught out by bad weather on Lake Superior — just as, the researchers later learned, the Atlanta had been eight decades before. And just like the Atlanta, it did not make it back to port.
An iconic shipwreck
Instead, the Edmund Fitzgerald sank into 530 feet of water, taking 29 lives with it. And ever since, it has been one of the most iconic shipwrecks of the Great Lakes, even inspiring a folk ballad the year after it sank. Today, the bell of the vessel can be seen on display in Lynn’s museum, where it serves as a memorial to those who lost their lives in the disaster.
Researchers from the GLSHS found a number of additional wrecks from the 19th century, including the Frank W. Wheeler, a schooner that sank in 1885. In a statement dated October 2021 Lynn said, “This has been a banner year.” Later, he added, “we have never located so many new wrecks in one season.” None of them, however, have been quite as fascinating — or as well preserved — as the Atlanta.
The fate of the Atlanta
With these shipwrecks in mind, the researchers no doubt surveyed the watery remains of the Atlanta with grim curiosity. The peace of the wreck site hides the horrors which struck the ship — and the events that sent it to a watery grave. Would the cameras find evidence of the tragedy that once befell the Atlanta? Or simply an eerie ghost ship, with nothing to shed any light on the fate of its crew?
Despite the pristine condition of the wreck, the Atlanta sank beneath the surface more than 130 years ago. According to reports, the schooner barge departed Buffalo, New York in 1891, en route to Duluth in Minnesota. But the 172-foot vessel, loaded down with a hold full of coal, was not traveling under its own steam.
Across the Great Lakes
Instead, the Atlanta had its sails down, with the steamer Wilhelm towing it steadily across the Great Lakes. And at first, the journey seemed to go without a hitch. Traveling through Lake Erie and then on into Lake Huron, the two vessels gradually made their way to Lake Superior and their final destination.
Unfortunately, on the evening of May 3, tragedy struck. Somewhere near Michigan’s Whitefish Point, coincidentally the location of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, the weather turned foul. And for hours, the Wilhelm struggled to tow the Atlanta through increasingly treacherous conditions. Eventually, though, the line connecting the two vessels snapped.
The United States Life-Saving Service’s annual report, which was released in June 1891, stated that the crew of the Atlanta initially tried to raise their own sail. But the boom shattered, leaving the vessel drifting helplessly in rough waters and furious winds. And for the next 20 minutes it was driven across the lake, caught in the full force of the gale.
Taking on water
Then, things got worse for the crew of the Atlanta, which was comprised of six men and one female cook. As water began to leak in, the vessel became harder and harder for them to control. Nevertheless, they spent the night manning the pumps and struggling to keep the ship upright as it rolled from side to side in the vicious waves.
The crew abandon ship
Eventually, at 11 a.m. the following morning, the decision was taken to abandon the Atlanta. By that point, the hold was straining under ten feet of water — sinking was inevitable. So, the crew of seven climbed into the lifeboat and struck out towards land.
A fateful vote
Just ten minutes later, reports claim, the Atlanta sank beneath the surface of Lake Superior. Meanwhile, the lifeboat drifted in the wind until those on board spotted the Crisp Point Life-Saving Station in the distance. Apparently, their captain wished to push on towards safer landing conditions at Whitefish Bay, but was outvoted by his crew.
Peril off Crisp Point
Tragically, this would prove to be the wrong decision. While struggling to shore at Crisp Point, the boat overturned, sending its passengers tumbling into the freezing water. And although the crew of the Atlanta managed to right their vessel, it flipped once more, leaving just two survivors clinging to the battered boat.
A failed rescue
Finally, a lookout on shore noticed the vessel in distress, having initially mistaken it for a tree root or log floating in the lake. But even though a rescue mission was quickly mounted, it was too late to save the crew members who had been washed away. In the end, just two men — Eli Wait and John Pickel — made it back to shore alive.
Even then, it was touch and go for a while. According to the United States Life-Saving Service report, both men were in such terrible condition that it “took several hours of the most unremitting effort before they were out of danger.” A few days later, Wait wrote to his rescuers to express thanks for their brave intervention.
"Saved at the point of death"
Up until the discovery of the Atlanta on the bottom of Lake Superior, this evocative letter was the only surviving relic connected to the lost ship. It reads, “I wish to express my thanks to the Life Saving Service, and this is to certify that I, Eli Waite, was saved at the point of death, and was pulled out of the heavy breakers by Capt. Small of the Crisps Station.”
In the letter, Wait goes on to explain that conditions in the lake were so bad he could not have survived much longer. Moreover, he attempts to reassure his rescuers that nothing more could have been done to save those who were already in the water. At the end of the note, John Pickel added his signature, suggesting that both men were in agreement over this version of events.
Propelled into the spotlight
The Atlanta, then, faced a tragic end, plummeting to the bottom of Lake Superior while its crew perished within sight of land. And now, thanks to diligent work by GLSHS, its story can finally be told. Although the sinking was documented at the time, the discovery of the wreck has propelled it into the spotlight once more, and with unexpected results.
Eerie video footage
On March 2, 2022, a video was uploaded to the GLShipwreckSociety YouTube channel. In it, we can see the ROV approaching the wreck of the Atlanta for the first time. And as the camera takes in the eerie scene, the viewer is transported back to that terrifying night 130 years ago.
A sinister reminder
Even the covers for the ship’s hatches, the video reveals, remain in place after more than a century underwater. And in one spot, a discarded toilet serves as a sinister reminder that real people, with a tragic destiny, once walked these forgotten decks. Elsewhere, the historic mechanism of the tiller made researchers question the vessel's age.
The real revelation
The real revelation, though, came when footage from the ROV revealed that the Atlanta’s three masts were missing. After the disaster, Wait and Pickel stated that each of the ship’s sails had been destroyed by the storm. And now, more than a century later, evidence has emerged that confirms these eyewitness accounts.
“No one has to ask where the Atlanta is any more,” GLSHS’ Darryl Ertel explained in the statement. But now that the mystery has finally been solved, what will happen to the wreck? According to Corey Adkins, who also works for the historical society, the ship and its contents will likely remain where they are, and for understandable reasons.
Back in 1980 the state of Michigan brought in laws to protect the shipwrecks that rest at the bottom of the Great Lakes. And under this legislation, it would actually be illegal for the GLSHS — or any other organization — to try and raise the Atlanta back to the surface. Besides, doing so would be quite dangerous, as Adkins explained.
Out of reach
“That wreck is so deep compared to others we’ve found, we’d like to leave this one undisturbed,” Adkins told CNN in March 2022. And given the fact that the Atlanta is located out of the reach of divers, he is likely to get his wish. As a precaution, though, the GLSHS has not released the exact location of the vessel. This doesn't mean shipwreck enthusiasts will never get to see an authentic wreck in person, however.
As the discovery of the Atlanta has shown, the shipwrecks of the Great Lakes are not all merely relics consigned to the past. Even today, previously lost vessels are still being found on a regular basis. In 2021, for example, the GLSHS smashed its previous record by locating no less than nine different sites in one season.
A lasting legacy
And although these wrecks will be left to rest in peace, they won't be forgotten for another century. According to Adkins, there are plans to stage an exhibition dedicated to the wreck of the Atlanta at the museum. With these developments, the story of Wait and Pickel — as well as those who lost their lives — will finally receive the attention that it deserves.