“We hope this discovery helps contribute to an element of closure to the extended families of those lost on the Ironton, and the communities impacted by its loss,” Ballard said. “The Ironton is yet another piece of the puzzle of Alpena’s fascinating place in America’s history of trade,” while the Thunder Bay sanctuary “continues to reveal lost chapters of maritime history.”
Nearly 200 shipwrecks are believed to rest within or nearby the boundaries of the sanctuary, which includes the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center in Alpena and some 4,300 square miles of northwestern Lake Huron.
Several factors made the area a “shipwreck alley” for more than two centuries, until modern navigation and weather forecasting reduced the danger, said Stephanie Gandulla, the sanctuary’s resource protection coordinator.
The late 1800s was a busy period for Great Lakes commerce. Thousands of schooners, or sailing ships, and hundreds of steamers hauled cargo and passengers between bustling port cities such as Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland.
The sanctuary area was something of a maritime highway cloverleaf. Vessels cruised to and from Lake Huron and Lake Michigan through the nearby Straits of Mackinac. Others ranged northward to Lake Superior, fetching iron ore for steel mills from mines in Minnesota and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
“It’s where the upbound and downbound shipping kind of crossed each other,” Gray said. “Busy intersections are where most accidents happen.”
The weather was notoriously unstable — dense fog, sudden storms. Islands and submerged reefs lurked.
On the fateful night, the Ironton and another schooner barge, the Moonlight, were being towed northward from the Lake Erie town of Ashtabula, Ohio, by a steam-powered ship — a common practice then, much as a train engine pulls freight cars on a railroad. They were bound for Marquette, a port city on Lake Superior.
The steamer broke down in heavy Lake Huron seas around 12:30 a.m. the morning of Sept. 26. The Ironton and the Moonlight disconnected their tow lines and drifted apart, with the Ironton crew setting sails and firing up its engine. It veered off course and ran into the Ohio, a freighter loaded with 1,000 tons of flour, about 10 miles off Presque Isle, Michigan.
The Ohio soon foundered, its crew of 16 rescued by the Moonlight. The Ironton stayed afloat more than an hour before going down.