Well-Preserved, 131-Year-Old Shipwreck Found in Lake Superior

Researchers discovered the S.S. “Atlanta” last summer while using sonar to map 2,500 miles of the seabed

broken mast from underwater wreckage
One of the three broken masts from the 1891 wreckage of SS Atlanta. Researchers discovered the ship at the bottom of Michigan's Lake Superior last summer. Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society

On the windy morning of May 4, 1891, a northwest gale on Lake Superior snapped the towline connecting the Atlanta schooner barge to its companion steamer, Wilhelm. With broken masts and a heavy load of coal on board, the 172-foot Atlanta quickly began to take on water. Its seven crew members clambered into a lifeboat and tried to reach the shore, but only two survived.

More than a century later, the wreck of the Atlanta has finally been found. Per a statement from the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society (GLSHS), which announced the discovery earlier this month, the vessel is submerged at a depth of 650 feet some 35 miles off Deer Park, Michigan. Researchers spotted the wreck last July while mapping more than 2,500 miles of Lake Superior with side-scan sonar, a technology that uses acoustical pulses to detect underwater objects on the lake floor.

“It’s a lot of tedious and boring and monotonous work, filled with little specs of joy and high-fiving,” GLSHS spokesperson Corey Adkins tells Nick Mordowanec of Newsweek.

Initially, reports Christine Hauser for the New York Times, the researchers were unable to identify the object detected by the sonar. They returned to the spot in August with a camera-mounted, remotely operated vehicle (ROV), which showed the vessel clearly, including a sign spelling out its name.

side hull of ship with letters that say ATLANTA
Underwater camera footage reveals clear views of the vessel, including a sign bearing the ship's name. Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society

“It was a target we had found earlier but were not exactly sure what it was,” Bruce Lynn, GLSHS’ executive director, tells the Times. “You never quite know until you see a smoking gun. That name board was it. It announced with no uncertain terms, ‘This is what I am.’”

Video footage corroborated details shared by two survivors of the wreck in 1891, including the fact that the Atlanta’s three masts had broken off during the storm, according to the statement. The surviving crewmembers detailed their harrowing account in letters and interviews with the Soo Democrat, a weekly newspaper in Sault Sainte Marie, the Times reports.

As the Atlanta began to sink, the crew tried to pump out the water that was flooding its hull. When those efforts proved futile, the seven sailors—six men and one woman, who served as the ship’s cook—piled into a lifeboat and floated adrift for nine hours. The lifeboat capsized twice roughly 200 yards from land; a rescuer spotted the small vessel but initially thought it was a tree trunk, per the Times.

The rescuer eventually pulled two men from the roiling water.

“It was impossible to save those that were lost; they were so benumbed with the cold that they could not hang on until the life-savers could get to them,” wrote sailor Eli Wait in a United States Life-Saving Service log shared by the society. “Two of us were all that could be saved; the rest went to the bottom and the undertow carried them out into the lake.”

The water pump of the Atlanta
A view of the Atlanta's water pump. Only seven sailors escaped the sinking ship—two survived. Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society

During and after the Industrial Revolution, ships regularly hauled coal and iron ore across the 32,000-square-mile Lake Superior, which also touches Minnesota; Wisconsin; and Ontario, Canada. Stormy weather and collisions sunk hundreds of vessels, including the Edmund Fitzgerald in 1975. Singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot immortalized the tragedy in his 1976 ballad “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”

The Atlanta was one of nine shipwrecks discovered by the society’s researchers in summer 2021—the highest number the organization has located in one season. As Brandon Champion reported for MLive.com last October, the team found three 19th-century shipwrecks—the Frank W. Wheeler, the Dot and the Michigan—in July alone.

To date, an estimated 6,000 shipwrecks have caused more than 30,000 deaths across all of the Great Lakes.

“Many people out there think the Edmund Fitzgerald is the only shipwreck on the lakes,” Adkins tells Frank Witsil of the Detroit Free Press. “While that's an important shipwreck on the lake—29 men lost their lives on it—five people lost their lives on the Atlanta. Their stories don't deserve, for lack of a better term, to get washed away.”

Under Michigan law, it’s illegal to remove artifacts from the Great Lakes, so the Atlanta will remain in its final resting place on Lake Superior’s floor. Individuals curious about the Atlanta and other shipwrecks can see artifacts at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, which is run by the society on Whitefish Point, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The museum plans to create an exhibition about the Atlanta, reports CNN’s Maxime Tamsett.