Home Dive Site Reviews Ohio Diving: History Below the Waterline from Vermillion to Ashtabula

Ohio Diving: History Below the Waterline from Vermillion to Ashtabula

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Ohio Diving - Adventure on Lake Erie - courtesy Underwater Connection

Article by Selene Muldowney
Photos by Underwater Connection – Ben Anderson & Diver Scott Harrison 

There is something magical about diving a shipwreck and knowing its history. 

There is a rich maritime history that lies beneath the surface of Ohio’s Lake Erie. The history associated with these shipwrecks reveals the role marine commerce played in the development of Ohio, the Great Lakes region, and our nation. The Great Lakes were once bustling with ships of all types and sizes. Lake Erie in particular was heavily traveled, as it connected the east with the mid-west at a time when railroad lines were short and roads were nonexistent. For cities like Buffalo, Cleveland and Detroit, Lake Erie was its lifeblood. 

The mid to late 1800’s was a treacherous period of maritime disasters. There was little in the way of navigational equipment, and no early warning of unexpected storms. Due largely to the shallowness of Lake Erie, many a ship met her fate in unexpected gales and heavy seas. 

The glory days of lake commerce are a gone, with the exception of the occasional lake freighter or fishing trawler. Between a combination of storms, fires, congestion of traffic, and alcohol, perhaps Lake Eerie hold the highest concentration of shipwrecks compared to anywhere in the world 

Authors and historians, Mike and Georgann Wachter have written extensively about the waters in Lake Erie in their books, Erie Wrecks, West, Erie Wreck & Lights. They tell fascinating historical accounts of how these wrecks came to be lost and what happened to the vessels. 

“Other ships were lost in collision or run aground in the fog. In our research we even found references to the ‘Lake Erie Monster’ a sea serpent of giant proportions. Regardless of the cause of the loss, the lure of a shipwreck is like no other for a diver. As you descend, you leave the present behind and enter a moment in the past. While you explore this unique time capsule, many questions go through your mind. What happened on that fateful day the ship went down? What was she carrying? Did the passengers and crew survive? 

The glory days of lake commerce are a gone, with the exception of the occasional lake freighter or fishing trawler. Today, we pay respect to the maritime history in a special way; by visiting many of the ships lost. Some are well-preserved museum pieces, some show evidence of the mighty lakes wrath, but all tell a story. We’ve been telling the stories for years, come and experience them for yourself,” Wachter states. 

Hundreds of shipwreck sites located in the depths of Lake Erie offering us a glimpse into our maritime history. The wrecks themselves are underwater museums, some ravaged by the storms and others simply weary with age, they all tell a story. 

The lake is divided into three basins: eastern, central, and western. Some of the more popular shipwrecks reside in the eastern basin. In the central basin the shallower water and warmer temperatures tend to decay the wrecks. Beaten by the wind and waves, these wrecks are usually in much worse shape than the eastern wrecks. 

While Lake Erie is the smallest and shallowest of the Great Lakes, she is estimated to have some 1,400 shipwrecks within her waters. The average depth is only 62 feet, with a 210 foot maximum depth on the eastern end. This contributes to diver interest as Lake Erie offers shipwreck diving within recreational and technical ranges. There are still many undiscovered vessels, hard to find and often the accounts in newspapers and books are not always available, resulting in piecing together the vessel’s history and sometimes approximating the location. 

Lake Erie actively participated in Great Lakes maritime trade, and her shipwrecks represent a cross-section of the vessel types used during the 1800’s (schooners, schooner barges, tugs, sidewheel steamers, and more). These historical vessels, now laying in watery graves, were often casualties of poor navigation (resulting in collisions), storm damage, groundings and fires. 

Ben Anderson, owner and instructor of Underwater Connection in Central Ohio, has been in business since 1988 and considered one of the oldest and most experienced PADI 5 Star. Underwater Connection, veteran owned and operated, offers a variety of services from scuba and free dive instruction, gear, products, and trips. They are also very involved as sponsors with MAST – many of the shop’s instructors are active members. Anderson actually grew up in Washington State but has since acclimated to the Ohio waters and shares his favorites. 

Ohio’s waters are shallow by comparison to the eastern end (off New York.) This can result in her shipwrecks being less intact due to currents, weather and seasonal damage (although several penetrable shipwrecks still exist.) In addition, portions of the lake bottom are soft and silty, while others are hard sediment or stone. This can result in the vessel sinking, separating and becoming covered. Debris fields often exist around the main area of vessel wreckage. 

Scott Harrison, diving enthusiast and MAST member, shares his favorite shipwrecks to visit around the Cleveland area. He has been diving for almost 19 years in the area and encourages new and seasoned divers to go on dive adventures aboard his boat that can accommodate four divers with two tank dives. He is also a member and runs the facebook pages for the Bay Area Divers and Lake Eerie Wreck Divers clubs. 

Harrison states, “We have this incredible resource in our back yard where the history lays within recreational limits – no need to be wreck certified to dive the western basin of lake Erie. Unfortunately,  there are not too many dive charters in the area. The water vis may not be the greatest but we do have good days and honestly we can always find a kick ass wooden ship to explore. The wrecks we find are beaten up a bit – not as preserved but they are easy to access – less technical and more recreational. For the most part the wrecks near Cleveland and are more accessible for newer divers. Divers must always have lights and reels.” 

We picked a number of wrecks to explore from the many that found their way to this watery grave along the coastal waters from Vermillion to Ashtabula and within a short distance to Cleveland. 

Loraine Shipwrecks: 

City of Concord 

The City of Concord lies in approximately 40-45 feet of water sitting upright in mud. The wreck site features a rudder, engine, boiler, windlass, chain, decking, and a relatively intact hull. Her last day of service was on September 27, 1906, near Point Pelee were she was struck by a gale and sprang a leak. Unfortunately, two lives lost. Her fires were drowned and the vessel sank with no steam to run her pumps. The crew made it to shore in a tiny yawlboat, even though they had only one oar. 

Morning Star 

Approximately 8 miles due north of Lorain Harbor, Ohio and located in approximately 59-68 feet, she rests on a mud/silt bottom. The Morning Star was reported to have been carrying 44 first class passengers, 38 crew members, and +/- 33 others, some possibly immigrants and non- reported 2nd class passengers. The cargo she carried was diverse, including pig iron, kegs of nails, mowing machinery, boxes of glass, stone, cheese, barrels of oil and other assorted lots of packaged freight. In June of 1868, while enroute from Cleveland to Detroit, she collided with the bark Cortland (captain G.W. Lawton). This wreck features engine and boilers a diver can swim through although much of the wreck and debris sunk to the soft bottom. Aquatic life at this depth include a variety of bottom-dwelling fish, such as sculpins, darters, and burbot. 

Harrison says, “Morning Star is easy to get to – great wreck to access. Mast has 11 or 12 moorings on wrecks in the area, this is one of them.” Harrison is responsible for placing the moorings on the vessels as part of his volunteer work with MAST. 

Anthony B Wayne

Built in 1837, the Anthony Wayne, also known as General Wayne, was a Sidewheel Steamer. She typically carried passengers, miscellaneous freight and livestock. Her wreck is located approximately 8 miles offshore and is separated into two sections. She sank in 1850 due to a mysterious explosion resulting in complete destruction of the vessel. At the time of her sinking she was carrying over 40 passenger and 300 barrels of high quality wine and whiskey. 

Hickory Stick 

Built in 1944, this dredge barge was roughly 110 feet long and used as a crane. She sank in a gale being battered by 15 foot waves and 75 mile an hour winds. The wreck lies 1.75 miles, 23 degrees from the tank at Avon Point in 42 feet of water.” 

Sarah Sheldon 

This wreck is a great wreck for novice divers and snorkelers to explore. Depending on water levels in the lake, she rests between no deeper than 20 feet deep. She was carrying coal from Cleveland to Sarina, Ontario when she was grounded by a storm in 1905 ultimately resulting in her sinking. Waves and ice have scattered much of the wreck although visible are burned timbers, planking, frame, centerboard trunk, amidships winch, propeller, some machinery (pipes, flywheel, crankshaft, etc.). The wreck site provides habitat for numerous fish species, including smallmouth bass, rock bass, sunfish, and the aquatic invading species the round goby. The wreck is encrusted by sharp edged zebra and quagga mussels. 

Alva B 

Built in 1890 as a tug steam made of wooded construction, this 73 foot vessel foundered in 1917 of. Avon Point, Avon Lake, Ohio. Waves and ice scour have taken their toll over the years. The Alva B wreck provides habitat for a number of Lake Erie fish species, including smallmouth bass, rock bass, sheepshead, sunfish, the non-indigenous round goby, and others. Scattered remains, including some timbers, planking, the steam boiler and other various engine parts in 10-12 FOW on a bottom of mostly sand, rock and gravel. 

Ivanhoe 

This 110 foot wooden schooner was built in 1848 and sank in 1855, approximately 3.5 miles north of Avon Lake, Ohio, in a collision with the schooner ARAB. All eleven crew members were saved. The bow is collapsed and buried beneath the bottom. Deck beams are at 50 ft. The planking is mostly missing. Port and starboard railings are intact. Coal is abundant everywhere. 

John Pridgeon Jr 

221 foot long propeller, bulk freighter built in 1875. The wreck lies on its port side, with the stern almost upside-down. Features include the huge propeller and engine, plus much of the ship’s lumber cargo. Vessel sank in 1909 due to leak in heavy seas. 

Cortland: Duke Luedtke 

Rebuilt in 1974, this tug boat sank when she sprang a leak for an unknown reason. The Coast Guard responded to her distress call and two of them were below trying to find the leak when she turned turtle and sank in 70 feet of water. Only one of the two was able to survive. 

Craftsman 

Built in 1946 then later rebuilt in 1946 as a work and repair barge. This wreck sits approximately one mile north of Avon Point at Avon Lake, Ohio, in 42 feet of water. The barges lies upright with winches, steel cable coils and deck hatches visible. A popular wreck site for divers, sitting on a gravel bottom. This wreck is also a fish attractor for species like smallmouth bass and schools of yellow perch, resulting in the area frequented by anglers as well as divers. Visibility can be good at times 20-30 feet, although often can be less than 5 feet. Wreck penetration is not recommended. Wreck surface very silty and takes little to stir up. 

Cleveland Ships: 

Steven F Gale 

Built in 1847, the Stephen F. Gale was a 2 mast wooden schooner with a typical cargo of stone. The schooner foundered in a storm in 1876. All hands were lost. The vessel currently lies upright, silted to the deck, on a mud bottom at a depth of 70 feet, approximately 18 miles north of Cleveland. The bow is split open, spread flat on the bottom. The cabin area, less the cabin structure, holds a stove. The stern is collapsed. The rudder remains exposed and upright. 

Dundee 

Built in 1893, this 211 foot wooden two deck, three mast, schooner barge is one of lake Eerie’s complete shipwrecks in the central basin. The wreck is located in 68-75 feet of water approximately 13.9 miles North of Cleveland. When it was first discovered in the 1970’s the bow area was complete, but since that time, the heavy windlass and donkey boiler have fallen to the port side, collapsing most of the upper deck. Much of the main deck is intact with decking missing at the edges. Along the railings are three sets of bit posts, as well as turnbuckles opposite from each of the three masts. Several of the hatch openings have monkey ladders leading into the hold. On the starboard side, there is a small brass pipe hidden among the many fallen timbers. Underneath the transom, you can shine your light and see the remnants of the rudder. 

Harrison states, “Dundee and Admiral are both safe penetration wrecks – swim through is visible. Love those two. Anywhere from 5 to 45 feet. Depends on the time of year and conditions of weather and other variables. Divers can find catfish, perch, carp and other fish making these wrecks their habitats.” 

Cleveco 

The Cleveco had a variety of names during her lifetime including Under the original owner, Standard Oil, she was first named the S.O. & Co. in 1916, followed by Scocony 85 in 1918, then the Gotham 85 in 1930, and finally the Cleveco in 1940. Originally#85, then renamed S.T. & Co. built as a sail barge. Built in 1913, she was intended to operate as a steel tanker towed by a tugboat. She sank in 1942 during a violent winter storm. All 18 hands onboard were lost. TheCleveco lies upside down in Lake Erie’s mud and silt bottom, in 78 feet of water, approximately 14 miles north of Euclid, Ohio. The Cleveco’s hull rises up and out of the bottom to a height of approximately 13-15 feet. Sealed valves along her keel are visible from efforts to salvage the oil from her tanks. 

Admiral 

Built as W.H. Meyer in 1907 and then renamed to Admiral in 1942 during the time of her rebuild, which incidentally was only 89 days before her sinking, was a 93 foot steel propeller tugboat. Occasionally she was also used as an icebreaker. In December on 1942 she foundered, capsized, and sank approximately 10 miles north of Avon Point, Ohio, and 18 miles west/northwest from Cleveland Harbor. She capsized during a fierce winter gale while towing the tanker barge Cleveco, which was loaded with a wartime cargo of fuel oil with the loss of all 14 hands aboard and 18 lost on the Cleveco

“The Admiral sits in approximately 70-80 feet of water, there is lots to see but buoyancy is a must otherwise all the movement does stir up the silty bottom which reduces visibility. We offer classes to help folks learn to maintain buoyancy,” states Anderson. 

Sand Merchant 

This 252 foot long steam engine propelled steel bulk-freight was built in 1927 and designed specifically as a sand sucker. The Sand Merchant did not have hatch covers over the open cargo hoppers, this made possible by her unusual supplementary buoyancy features, four particularly large tanks fitted on either side of the cargo hoppers. The ship was designed to be a stable, seaworthy vessel, despite the temporary fluidity of her cargo, which quickly settled down into a dense, inert mass. She lies upside down on a mud bottom in approximately 60 feet of water with her bow facing southeast. She foundered in 1936 approximately 17 miles NW of Cleveland. 

“We recently visited this wreck. It is a great wreck to take newer students and recreational divers. The wreck is fairly easy to navigate, visibility can range but we have seen up to 40 feet. She is just shy of 250 feet long so there is plenty of room for all the divers to explore her without running 

into each other. Her lowest depth is reportedly 65 feet but we measure around the 50 foot range, so she is a shallower dive. Plenty of machinery can be found, she was an active ship. What is super crazy about her is that she lies upside down. The first thing to greet a diver is the huge propeller. As you travel along her side you can see doorways and ports. It is not recommended to penetrate her but you can take a peek inside,” states Anderson. 

“One caution is to be very careful – not with boat hazards or what one would typically consider but the zebra mussels. They are razor sharp and can cut a hand easily. Buoyancy is a must!” continues Anderson. 

Two Fannies 

Two Fannies was a three-masted bark built in 1862 in Peshtigo, Wisconsin and measured 152 feet on deck. She was specifically designed for use as a lumber and iron ore carrier. She currently sits in 60 feet of water just five miles north of Bay Village, Ohio. She sank in 1890 as she was being towed bound for Cleveland. She was fully laden with a cargo of iron ore. Due to the heavy chop she sprung a leak in her hold. The crew used pumps to draw the incoming water out, however, the water began to rise faster as the leak worsened and the Captain determined she would likely sink. The crew abandoned ship and luckily were able to move far and fast enough from the sinking vessels as not to be sucked into the water as the vessel sank. 

Fairport-Ashtabula: Queen of the West 

Located off east side of Cleveland, the “Queen” was built in 1881 as a bulk freighter hauling iron ore, coal, and grain. She sank approximately 8 miles north of Fairport Harbor, Ohio. She sank in 1903 heading to Erie Pennsylvania from Escanaba, Michigan and after stopping in Cleveland with a load of iron ore. The hull was found to have sprung a leak, the pumps could not keep the water pouring in and she began to sink. She sank in 71 feet of water causing the rescue operation of her crew to be rather precarious. Due to her depth, it is considered an advanced wreck dive. The wooden hull and timbers are gone, with the bow being the most intact structure. The stern area is either gone or fallen to the bottom. Of note, are the remains of the engine, boiler, winches, chain and the bow windlass. The midsection decking of the wreck is gone, leaving the hull open. 

Harrison adds, “The Queen is a neat wreck – has a mast mooring on it. 

North Carolina 

Built in 1908 she sank on December 9, 1968, 1.5 miles off the harbor at Mentor, Ohio, in 30 feet of water. There was no loss of life was reported. She was converted from a steamer to a diesel in 1951. Cause of her sinking unknown, although she is a more popular diver destination. 

Marquette & Bessemer #2 

She is a mysterious and elusive ship luring many divers to search for her over the years. Some experts believe she is lying in deep water buried in a muddy bottom, covered partially or totally with silt. She is often referred to as the “holy grail” of Lake Erie shipwrecks and is considered to be one of the most sought-after shipwrecks in the Great Lakes. 

John B Lyon 

Built in 1888, this 255 foot wooden Bulk Freight steamer sank in 1900 as she encountered the tail end of the west Indian Hurricane, which proved to be disastrous. She took with her nine of the fifteen crew and was reportedly valued at $60,000. 

James Reed 

Built in 1903, this 448 foot steel propeller steamer was used to transport iron ore. Sunk in a collision with the Canadian propeller Ashcroft in the fog in 1944 just 20 miles north of Conneaut, Ohio, Lake Erie. 12 lives were lost as she sank in 66 feet of water. The namesake of this bulk freighter was Mr. James Hay Reed, who was born in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, on September 10, 1853. He served as president of the Bessemer and Lake Erie Railroad Company, which is the reason for the namesake. He also served from February 20, 1891, until January 15, 1892, as United States District Judge for western Pennsylvania. 

North Carolina (Queen of the West – North Carolina) 

Built as L.C. Sabin in 1908 and later renamed in 1941, North Carolina was a propeller diesel tug. She sank in December of 1968 1.5 miles off the harbor at Mentor, Ohio. No crew members were lost, all rescued by the US Coast Guard. Cause of the sinking is not known. The engine room began flooding about noon causing a wave of problems including electrical malfunctions affecting the pumps and the radio. Onlookers reported watching her sink in place. 

Eerie Island shipwrecks 

The lake averages approximately 62 feet, yet contains hundreds of historical shipwrecks. For divers, the underwater preserve around Kelly’s Island is the resting place of three vessels. The steam ship Adventure rests in 5-15ft of water in North Bay. It was a schooner from 1875 until 1897 then it was converted to a steam barge in 1897 and sank in 1903. It rests 200ft off shore. The Hanna, a scow schooner sank in 1886 in 3-8ft of water, and the F.H. Prince, a propeller steamer sank in 5-18ft in 1911. Built in 1890, she was converted into a sand dredge vessel in 1910 and sunk a year later. It seems that ships converted for other duties did not last long after the conversion process in these waters. 

Isabella J Boyce (Middle Bass Island) 

Built in 1889 was launched as a bulk freighter then in 1915 converted to a sandsucker. She grounded on Middle Bass Island in Lake Erie in 1917, catching fire and sinking into 10 feet of water. The wreckage is scattered. 

Kelly’s Island 

Lake Erie contains approximately 1700 shipwrecks and 50 of them are in the waters surrounding Kelleys Island. Scuba divers are able to explore them while snorkeling and diving from the shoreline. The cool fresh lake water has preserved shipwrecks that would have disappeared long ago in a salt water environment. 

Hanna (Kelleys island) 

W.R. Hanna is a single deck scow schooner built in 1857 and includes two masts and a square bow and stern. She sank in 1886 from gale force winds that drove the vessel ashore and broke her to pieces. 

Adventure (Kelleys island) 

Built in 1875, she was originally built as a schooner then later converted to propeller steamer. Depending upon Lake Erie’s changing water levels, the wreck lies in approximately 5-7 feet of water, with the major portion of the (108 feet) wreck parallel to shore. Remains include burned timbers, planking, frame, centerboard trunk, amidships winch, propeller, 

some machinery (pipes, flywheel, crankshaft, etc.) The wreck site provides habitat for numerous fish species, including smallmouth bass, rock bass, sunfish, and the aquatic invading species the round goby. The wreck is also encrusted with sharp edged zebra and quagga mussels. In October of 1903, loaded with a cargo of burned limestone in wooden barrels, she caught fire almost taking the lives of the captain, his wife, and their daughter. Over the years artifacts have been removed, some on display. 

FH Prince (Kelleys island) 

This 240 foot wooden propeller steamer, built in 1890, served as a package freighter then later converted to a sand and gravel cargo freighter. She lies approximately half a mile offshore, east of the Kelleys Island Airport in 16-18 feet of water. Unfortunately nature was hard on her as the waves and ice scattered some of her wreckage. This popular site for scuba divers and snorkelers also attracts anglers who seek out a variety of fish including smallmouth bass and rock bass. The wreck contains the keel and keelsons, many of the ribs, planking, and engine works. In 1911 she caught fire and ran aground at the East end of Kelleys Island by Captain H.H. Parsons. 

Success (Marblehead Peninsula) 

This wooden, all teak, 3-mast ship was built in Burma in 1840. There is some debate as to the original date she was built, a flyer had been circulated stating she was built in 170, yet there is no record of her existence prior to 1840. She was converted to a prison ship in 1857 then abandoned and scuttled in Sidney, Australia, then resurrected in 1885 as a convict ship museum. She retired in Ohio in 1939 where she was burned by vandals. 

Charles B Hill SS 

Built in 1878 and ran aground 1906. Located One half mile off Madison, Ohio, this wreck lies in 18 feet of water and measures a modest 77 feet long. Considered a novice dive, 

the wreck is in poor shape, although she has a boiler, single shaft, and steeple compound engine visible. The wooden steamer sprung a leak in a storm and run aground. 

CSS Queen of the West

US Ram Queen of the West, a sidewheel steamer built at Cincinnati, Ohio, was built in 1854. She was purchased by the United States Department of War in 1862 and fitted out as a ram for Colonel Charles Ellet, Jr.’s Ram Fleet which operated on the Mississippi River in the U.S. Civil War in conjunction with the Western Flotilla. Launched in 1854 and later Captured by Confederate States Army, 14February 1863. In April of 1863 she was attacked and destroyed. 

Other wrecks we found interesting included: 

Algeria, Charles H Davis,  Fannie L Jones,  Mable Wilson ,“117 Street” Wreck HG Cleveland. John B Griffin
Bay Coal Schooner,  Ivanhoe 
,St Lawrence & Quito 

We cannot talk about diving in lake Eerie scuba diving without mentioning the MAST. Since their beginning in 2000, the Maritime Archaeological  Survey Team ( M A S T ) h a s had quite a positive impact regarding the knowledge about and preservation of Lake Erie shipwrecks.  The MAST is a nonprofit avocational group dedicated to documentation, scientific study and education pertaining to underwater archaeological resources. 

With over 1,400 wrecks estimated to be in Lake Erie, only five have been surveyed and registered as an official archaeological site with the State of Ohio. Each vessel was surveyed by MAST members. Educating the public was a prime reason the surveys were conducted. As a result of this venture and in conjunction with The Great Lakes Historical Society and Ohio Sea Grant three underwater dive slates were created. They contain a map of the site which will help divers understand what they are seeing during the dive along with a vessel history on the reverse side. 

From training divers the skills necessary to conduct shipwreck research, to conducting numerous underwater shipwreck surveys, MAST has become an important part in the preservation of Ohio’s Lake Erie maritime heritage. One of the most important efforts MAST has undertaken is the seasonal placement of mooring buoys on popular Lake Erie shipwrecks. For more information about the MAST Ohio Shipwreck Mooring Project, how you can be a part of MAST, and how you can contribute to their efforts, please visit: www.ohiomast.org