Sunken Treasure

The Marquette & Bessemer No. 2 disappeared in a winter storm 100 years ago, but shipwreck hunters Mike and Georgann Wachter are still enthralled by the mystery of why Lake Erie’s largest ghost ship has never been found.
The Marquette & Bessemer No. 2 was just 4 years old when it set sail on the morning of Dec. 8, 1909. Loaded with railcars full of coal and steel and manned by a crew of 30, the steamship’s trip from Conneaut, Ohio, to Port Stanley, Ontario, was to be a routine one.

A cruel Lake Erie gale changed all that, unleashing 20-foot waves and blinding whiteout conditions. A tugboat captain heading back to harbor reported seeing the M&B about 20 minutes into the doomed ship’s journey. He had spotted Capt. Robert R. McLeod on deck, yelling for help through a megaphone. It was the last time anyone saw him alive.

December marks the 100th anniversary of the Marquette & Bessemer’s disappearance. Though it is one of more than 1,700 ships lost on Lake Erie, it carries a unique distinction: It is the largest of the so-called ghost ships — vessels that are assumed to reside on the lake’s floor but have never been located.

“Nobody’s exactly sure what happened to it,” says Carrie Sowden, a nautical archaeologist who explores Lake Erie shipwrecks for the Peachman Lake Erie Shipwreck Research Center in Vermilion. “Nobody saw it sink, and nobody’s been able to find it to date.”

Naturally, legends have sprung up around the ship’s disappearance. One story claims that gold coins that would be worth $150,000 today were aboard the ship when it disappeared. A nautical ghost story says you can still see the lost ship’s lights in the Conneaut harbor on stormy nights.

But the truth, that a 338-by-54-foot ship disappeared without a trace in a lake only 200 feet deep, is creepier than the myths.

Mike and Georgann Wachter of Avon Lake are divers who have written four books about Great Lakes shipwrecks. They’ve also collected documents during that time in the hopes of unraveling what happened to the M&B on the day it was lost.

One strange detail they’ve uncovered is that two witnesses reported spotting the ship on opposite sides of the lake within the same two-hour window, more than 12 hours after it first left the harbor. A Conneaut crane operator reported hearing the ship’s distress signal at 1:30 a.m., while a Canadian woman reported seeing the ship off the shore at 3:10 a.m.

“There was no way that at 1:30 in the morning [the M&B] was off of Conneaut and at 3:10 in the morning off of Port Stanley,” Wachter says.

Adding to the mystery is where the crew members’ bodies were recovered. A boater found a lifeboat carrying nine frozen bodies 15 miles from Erie, Pa., three days after the ship’s disappearance. But Capt. McLeod’s body was not discovered until 10 months later — washed on the Canadian shore of Long Point, Ontario.

Wachter speculates that the ship sank either because a line of rail cars fell off, causing the unbalanced vessel to flip over, or enough water washed over the stern to extinguish the boilers, cutting off power and stopping the ship.

The enduring mystery, however, is why not even skilled divers can find the wreck on the lake bottom. Wachter says he is skeptical that such a large ship could be completely submerged in the lake’s soft floor. “The silt doesn’t go down forever,” he explains. “This is a big enough vessel where she’d still be sticking up.”

Based on their research, the Wachters have a hunch that the M&B sits in a deep, 75-square-mile area of American waters north of Fairport Harbor in Lake County. But investigating that spot alone would require a year or two of searching.

Fair warning: Mike Wachter says anyone who tries to find the M&B shouldn’t do it for the gold.

“Like most ships on the bottom of Lake Erie, there is no treasure,” he says. “The only real treasure is the stories and the history.”
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