An astonishing find at the bottom of the Great Lakes is getting attention around the world.
Filmmakers working on a documentary about invasive mussels in the Great Lakes have stumbled upon what they believe is a 128-year old steamship at the bottom of Lake Huron.
North American boaters are likely familiar with the five massive basins that comprise the Great Lakes, but those outside the continent may be unaware the largest freshwater lakes on Earth aren’t that unlike the dangerous waters of the Atlantic or Pacific.
Because of their sheer size and depth, the Great Lakes — which includes Superior, Erie, Huron, Michigan, and Ontario — hold some of the most famous shipwrecks in maritime history.
Now that list is now getting more attention with the discovery of a missing steamship last seen in 1895.
The 128-year old wooden steamship named the Africa was discovered by filmmakers Yvonne Drebert and Zach Melnick in June. The pair received a tip from local scientists conducting a fish study off the coast of the Bruce Peninsula which led them to the ship’s resting place. The peninsula is a well-known landmark in the Great Lakes as the unique outcropping marks the divide between the larger Lake Huron to the south and the smaller Georgian Bay to the north.
The scientists conducting the fish study had noted a sonar anomaly consistent with a shipwreck, which they forwarded to Drebart and Melnick for further study.
The filmmakers, a husband and wife team who live on the Bruce Peninsula and run Inspired Planet Productions, were in the midst of a documentary about the invasive quagga mussels wreaking havoc on the Great Lakes. Originally from the Black Sea region in Eurasia, quagga mussels cover lake bottoms in massive groupings while simultaneously filtering plankton out of the water. The loss of plankton is devastating for fish populations, and various government agencies in Canada and the United States have been fighting since the 1980s to limit their ecological impact.
To find the vessel, and the horde of mussels attached to it, Drebert and Melnick used an ROV to explore the lake bottom using the coordinates provided by the scientists.
“When we set out on this project we thought what’s the best possible tool for us to kind of play James Cameron and get to the bottom of the lakes and show people what’s happening there? This was the best tool,” Melnick told the Owen Sound TImes.
“The robot gets to the bottom of the lake and surprise, surprise there are mussels. So I’m thinking, oh great, let’s go back, this is going to be nothing,” Drebert added.
But, hovering at depth of nearly 280 feet in the deceptively clear waters, Drebert saw a silhouette of something in the distance.
“It’s like, OK, that could be a pile of rocks or something. Then it very slowly came into view and became obvious it was a shipwreck in incredible condition. We all started freaking out, really,” Melnick told the Owen Sound Times.
After circling the vessel’s impressive length, Melnick and team then noticed the steam stack rising from its centre.
A rare feature among Great Lakes shipwrecks, the steam stack would mark the beginnings of a mission to uncover the vessel’s name and origin.
“We started putting all the pieces together and started getting even more and more excited about it and we started thinking what is this?” Melnick recalled.
The task wouldn’t be easy, first and foremost due to the quagga mussels coating the hull. Since nearly all discovered shipwrecks fall under preservation and anti-salvaging laws in Canada, the vessel couldn’t be touched.
That meant Melnick and Drebert would have to explore other avenues to uncover the ship’s origin.
“It’s a bit of a double-edged sword for us because it’s kind of great to be able to see with the clarity the mussels have created but they’re also having these huge ecosystem impacts,” Drebert told the Owen Sound Times. “It’s really flipped the whole ecosystem on its head.”
The qauggas, which are a cousin of the equally problematic zebra mussel, coat any surface by the thousands, making it impossible (or potentially illegal) to clear away a section of the hull to locate a name or ID number.
So, to get to the bottom of the mystery, the filmmakers approached maritime historical Patrick Folkes and marine archaeologist Scarlett Janusas to learn more.
In an article with Canadian Geographic, Folkes, the author of “Shipwrecks of the Saugeen,” estimates that about 100 ships sunk in the region between 1848 and 1930. Approximately 40 to 50 have never found, which means there are a multitude of undiscovered wrecks littering the floor of Lake Huron.
“Sometimes the only clue [that a ship had been lost] was when bodies or wreckage washed ashore,” Folkes told Canadian Geographic.
In order to continue searching around the vessel itself, the team secured an archaeological license from the province of Ontario that allowed them to return to the shipwreck with an ROV and look for more clues.
After taking measurements to confirm the ship’s length, wide, and signature features, historical research narrowed it down to three names — the Eclipse, last seen in 1883; the Africa, sunk in 1895; and the Saturn, lost in 1901.
The ‘Africa’ when she was a passenger ship / Photo- Historical Collections of the Great Lakes, Bowling Green State University
In the silt surrounding the wreckage were pieces of coal — a telltale sign that she was a cargo ship. With that detail paired her surprising length and steam stack, the only logical candidate was the Africa.
And therein lies the story of a mysterious vessel whose unique appearance had to be unwound through the webs of time.
The original photos and construction details for the Africa didn’t match the ship found at the bottom of Lake Huron. In fact, most records showed her as a passenger ship full of guest cabins, not a cargo ship used for hauling coal.
As the story goes, the Africa was built in Kingston, Ontario in 1873 for a cost of $37,000 in gold — a peculiar detail in its own right — and spent her first 12 years shuttling passengers between Montreal, Chicago, Toledo, and Owen Sound. She was even known to race other passenger ships on the Great Lakes.
But, in 1886 disaster struck when the Africa inexplicably caught fire, likely from an explosion onboard. She was moored in Owen Sound at the time and the ship burned down to the waterline.
In an extremely rare move, rather than scrapping the vessel as a burnt-out heap that she appeared to be, the Africa was completely rebuilt as a steam barge. In the process, another 14 feet was added to her length and her interior cabins were removed to create more cargo space.
She would spend the next nine years criss-crossing Lake Huron hauling lumber and coal.
The ‘Africa’ refitted as a cargo barge / Photo- Historical Collections of the Great Lakes, Bowling Green State University
Then, on October 5th, 1895, she left port in Ashtabula, Ohio and headed for Owen Sound, Ontario with the schooner Severn in tow. Both ships were loaded with coal.
On board the Africa were 10 crew and her captain Hans Larsen.
Late on October 7th, both ships encountered a nasty storm off the Saugeen Peninsula. The winds were so strong they shredded the sails on the Severn. As it became apparent both vessels were in distress, Larsen called for the Africa to release the Severn from her tow line.
Now adrift in the storm and with dusk setting in, the crew of the Severn watched the outline of the Africa disappear in the distance.
Miraculously, help arrived to the Severn early the next morning. Her crew were found cold, wet, and rattled, but alive. They’d hit a reef while adrift, which damaged the boat but didn’t sink it, and the sailors had started a small fire inside in the hold using the coals from their cargo to keep hypothermia at bay.
The Africa was never seen again.
“Capt. Larsen either thought that we were sinking, or his vessel was foundering,” the Severn’s captain, James Silversides, told a local newspaper days after the storm, according to Canadian Geographic. “I think it was the latter, because he is a grand fellow, and would never have deserted us if he thought we were in a bad way.”
A search for the Africa was immediately launched, and shortly thereafter the crew of the Severn found the Africa’s lifeboat — but it was dry.
“No one had ever been in her,” Silversides told the local newspaper. “I tell you that I have passed through some bad weather during my thirty-five years’ sailing, but that experience upon Lake Huron is as bad as any. Captain Larsen was a splendid fellow to sail with, and he did all he could in this case to prevent what happened.”
In the days that followed, two bodies were discovered by fisherman. Over the following months, debris from the Africa, including ominous items like life preservers and a trunk containing personal items, washed ashore. But nothing definitive was ever found that explained where, or how, the Africa went down.
The following summer, in 1896, three more bodies washed ashore, including that of Captain Larsen.
For the next 128 years, no other debris from the Africa was discovered, and no new theories about her disappearance gained momentum. Her loss was chocked up as another victim of the deceptively dangerous Great Lakes.
Thanks to Melnick and Drebert, the location of the Africa is now known, which means the process of uncovering the gaps in her story can begin. In a strange twist of fate, Larsen Cove, where filmmakers Drebert and Melnick reside on the Bruce Peninsula, is named after captain Larsen.
Now the duo, alongside the historian Folkes and the archeologist Janusas, will seek to answer the last remaining questions about the Africa.
How did she sink? And what happened to her crew?
Human remains are likely still on board the ship, perhaps in the engine room where they are beyond view, says Folkes, according to Canadian Geographic. To keep salvagers, divers, and other gawkers from disturbing what is likely a historic burial site, Melnick and Drebert are keeping the exact location of the Africa a secret.
“It’s a human tragedy; those lives were lost,” Folkes told Canadian Geographic. “I always think of those poor sailors. They had pretty tough lives and ended up getting drowned in Lake Huron.”
“We’ve lived by the Great Lakes, a stone’s throw away our whole lives, and there is so much about them we haven’t seen and don’t know. The potential for exploration with this craft just opens up a whole new universe for us,” Drebert told the Owen Sound Times.
The story of the Africa will feature in the pair’s upcoming documentary All Too Clear — with the story between her discovery and the invasive mussels offering a clear glimpse into the depths of the Great Lakes.
For more information on the All Too Clear documentary visit www.inspiredplanet.ca.
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