Lake Superior Shipwrecks
Discovering the Past


Native Americans were the first to use Lake Superior's waters as a source of food and avenue of transportation. Their craft consisted mainly of birchbark canoes. The first Europeans paddled birchbark canoes and bateaux to support exploration and trade on Lake Superior beginning in the 1600s. In the 1700s, a rapidly growing fur trade led to the development of larger cargo-carrying vessels such as double-ended York boats and mackinaws. When the fur trade declined in the 1800s, many Euro-Americans on Lake Superior turned to fishing. That transition is reflected in the construction of vessels specifically for fishing.

By the end of the 18th century, a number of merchant ships, mostly small lake schooners, were sailing on Lake Superior. They engaged in trade and transportation between Sault Sainte Marie and trading stations at the western end of the lake. In 1854, the La Pointe Treaty, with the Ojibwe, granted the entire Minnesota shoreline of Lake Superior to the United States. This provided the impetus for settlement of the north shore. White settlers staked claims near Duluth, Knife River, Beaver Bay, and Grand Marais. Most claims were associated with natural harbors and resources such as copper, iron, and timber.

Late in the 19th century, as settlements became cities, Lake Superior navigation grew. Larger vessels were developed to transport massive cargos of lumber or iron ore. Once the railroads connected Duluth and Superior to the rest of the Midwest, wheat and corn became important bulk cargos. The introduction of steam-powered vessels in 1834 marked the beginning of a revolution - ships no longer depended on the wind. Reliable steam power and the introduction of iron ships led to larger and larger vessels. The internal combustion engine and the development of steel ships furthered this progression. Today the grain and ore trades dominate lake commerce in vessels over a 1000 feet long.

Navigation on Lake Superior has not been without sacrifice. Hundreds of vessels have been lost through mechanical error, human error, and stormy weather. We have no physical remains of the earliest navigation there. But the record of European exploration and fur trade suggests that canoes, bateaux, York, and mackinaw boats were among the earliest shipwrecks, followed by the small sloops and schooners supporting the fur and fishing industries. The schooner Madeline, reported lost off Knife River in April 1838, is one example.

During the 19th century, some of the larger vessels built to carry lumber and iron ore met their doom. In 1875, the schooner Stranger foundered somewhere in Lake Superior after drifting helplessly from Grand Marais. The schooner Charley was destroyed near Beaver Bay in May, 1881. The sidewheel steamer Lotta Bernard, associated with early North Shore settlement, was lost off Encampment River in October, 1874. The 200-foot schooner Samuel P. Ely was wrecked at Two Harbors on October 29, 1896, while entering port to take on ore. Other important wrecks in Minnesota waters of Lake Superior include the Hesper, the Thomas Wilson, the Madeira, the Onoko, the Niagara, the Amboy, the George Spencer, and the U.S.S. Essex.

Besides shipwrecks, submerged cultural resources include the remains of wharves, docks, and refuse sites associated with fur trading stations, fishing settlements, lumber and mining camps, and vessel salvage activities. While these may not be as exciting as fully intact vessels, they nevertheless tell much about early inhabitants of Lake Superior.

— More information about Lake Superior's Split Rock Lighthouse.

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