Extremely Rare Boat Discovered in 120-Year-Old Shipwreck At the Bottom of Lake Superior

by Taylor Cunningham
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Researchers have discovered an incredibly rare whaleback shipwreck sitting on the bottom of Lake Superior.

The boat, which has been identified as Barge 129, is one of only 44 whalebacks ever made. The 292-foot ship once sailed the Great Lakes during the 19th century. And today, it’s resting about 35 miles off Vermilion point, a shoreline in Chippewa County, Michigan.

Whalebacks were cargo steamships used during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Their unusual curved design made them look similar to floating submarines. The vessels typically carried grain or ore.

Specialists with the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society first spotted the vessel using sonar in 2021. But it wasn’t until this past August that they were able to identify the remains.

“There are a lot of wrecks out there, but some of them have these features, or characteristics, that make us want to find them more, and this was definitely one of them because they’re very unusual ships,” said Bruce Lynn, the society’s executive director. “The fact that this was the last whaleback vessel to sink on the Great Lakes that hadn’t been discovered, this is one we wanted to find for a very long time.”

Researchers Used an Underwater Drone to Identify the Shipwreck

Barge 129 sank during a storm on October 13, 1902. At the time, it was being pulled to shore by another boat, and the towline snapped, causing the two vessels to collide. Luckily, all the crew members made it safely to the other boat. But the boat descended 650 feet, which made it impossible to recover.

The researchers first found the shipwreck while scouring the lake’s floor with sonar. And they initially suspected that it was a whaleback. However, they weren’t able to verify those suspicions until they used an underwater drone to capture clearer images.

“Once we were able to get the ROV down on it, when we got up near the bow, there was no question. That bow was unmistakable. We knew what we had, and that was really exciting,” Lynn shared. “We were the first human eyes to see it in over 120 years.”

The vessel was the only whaleback Great Lakes shipwreck that had not been located. And today, only one of its kind, the SS Meteor, remains intact. That ship is currently on display in a museum in Superior, Wisconsin.

“A big part of what we do is telling the stories and keeping the history alive of these various shipwrecks that we’re finding,” Lynn added. “It’s not a shipwreck that most people have heard of, even here in the Great Lakes. Finding this unique of a vessel … now gives us this ability to tell its story and history as we go forward.”