The Great Lakes have more shipwrecks per square mile than any other body of water in the world — estimated at more than 8,000. Of those, 2,000 occurred on Lake Erie, which, as the shallowest and southernmost of the Great Lakes, can be particularly susceptible, says Carrie Sowden, archaeological and research director for the National Museum of the Great Lakes in Toledo.
“We’re closer to the jet stream, so we get greater shifts in weather because we’re so far south,” says Sowden, of Rocky River.
A surprising number of shipwrecks were minor enough that the vessel could be repaired, or in shallow enough waters that they could be raised and reused. But she estimates there are still 250 shipwrecks in Ohio waters, “and that’s just a guess,” she says. “We don’t know, because nobody’s ever mapped the entire floor of Lake Erie.”
But they’re trying. Sowden, herself a certified diver, works with Cleveland Underwater Explorers to map out the lake floor. The project starts in a library, searching for information about shipwrecks, trying to pinpoint, as close as possible, where a boat may have sank.
“Sometimes, you can get a search area within a square mile, or sometimes it can be within 20 square miles,” she says.
The next step is what Sowden calls “mowing the lawn” — going over the search area by boat, traveling as slowly as less than two knots, with a side-scan sonar device, laboriously plotting out the lake floor.
“You review your findings as you go and then review later for something that looks like it’s sticking up off the lake floor,” she says.
And there’s no sign it’ll ever be completed.
“It’s a forever process,” she says. “There are still a lot of shipwrecks out there.”
Famous Shipwrecks in Lake Erie
The Lake Serpent: Located in 2018, this 47-foot schooner is believed to be the oldest known shipwreck in Lake Erie.
The Marquette & Bessemer No. 2: This railroad car ferry is presumed to have sank in 1909 between Conneaut and Port Stanley, Ontario, but it’s never been found. It remains the Holy Grail of Lake Erie shipwrecks.
The Success prison ship: Famed as a tourist attraction (even if its history is, uh, dubious, to say the least) in Cleveland and at world fairs, the headline-making ship was towed to Port Clinton, where vandals set it on fire in 1946.
The Morning Star: The ship sank after colliding with another vessel in 1868. It was raised for salvage, and was being towed to Lorain three months later when it sank again.Want to stay up to date on the latest happenings in Northeast Ohio? Sign up for our Cleveland Magazine Daily newsletter, which delivers to your email inbox six times a week. Subscribe today.