Wreckage of a Steamer Sunk More Than a Century Ago Found

Historical Collections of the Great Lakes, Bowling Green State University
Historical Collections of the Great Lakes, Bowling Green State University

Shipwreck hunters have discovered the remains of a barge that sunk beneath the waters of Lake Erie in 1899.

The Margaret Olwill was a steamer that has managed to escape notice for decades, despite efforts to uncover its sub-aquatic location. It was loaded down with limestone headed for Cleveland when a storm took it and the eight lives aboard, among them, the captain and his wife, as well as their nine-year-old son.

The National Museum of the Great Lakes has reported its discovery by shipwreck hunter Rob Ruetschle, who began his search for the missing vessel more than 30 years ago. But searching Lake Erie is no small feat: While it is the both the warmest of the Great Lakes, as well as the smallest by water volume, it also freezes much more often than any of the others.

Furthermore, despite its aforementioned volume, it still covers nearly 10,000 square miles of surface area. Finding anything — even the potential thousands of shipwrecks beneath its oft-frozen waters represents a worthy challenge for even the most diligent hunters.

Lake Erie is a fickle mistress at the best of times. The same sudden violence with which storms tend to hit its waters has proved as much an obstacle to the shipwreck hunters as the original voyagers. And while anywhere from hundreds to thousands might be down there somewhere, David VanZandt of the Cleveland Underwater Explorers asserts that the group “[keeps] knocking those off and the list is getting shorter.”

Ruetschle himself describes the experience of finding the Margaret Olwill as “sort of like climbing Mount Everest for the first time.” While he no longer resides in Ohio, he returns there in the summer to continue his searches. He and others have completed dives to better confirm the steam barge’s identity. Now, they move on to their next mystery.