LORAIN, Ohio (AP) — A vessel sitting on the bottom of Lake Erie is the newest find for a pair of shipwreck hunters who search the waters off Lorain.
The ship, Republic, has not been seen for more than a century, but this summer Avon Lake shipwreck hunters and authors Georgann and Mike Wachter pinpointed the location about 40 feet below the surface of the lake.
“Most people say, OK, it was a 40-year-old boat and it was waterlogged and it sank,” Mike Wachter said. “But there’s so much more to its story.”
Using maritime records, the Wachters have pieced together the history of the Republic, a 130-foot vessel built in 1854 in Clayton, New York, on Lake Ontario.
The Republic was a 130-foot long vessel that began life as a tall ship plying the waters of the Great Lakes. Its working life ended July 30, 1895, on the bottom of Lake Erie off Lorain.
It began life as a barkentine, a type of tall ship plying the waters of the Great Lakes. Later, it was rigged as a schooner, another type of tall ship that took fewer crew members to sail than the barkentine, Georgann Wachter said.
By the time the Republic was 40 years old, its glory days of wind power were over. It still carried masts and rigging for sailing as needed, but it was used as a barge towed behind a powered vessel.
On July 30, 1895, the Republic was loaded with coal and being towed by the Swallow heading for the environs of Detroit.
When a storm kicked up off Lorain, the Republic could not handle the rough water. The crew of the Swallow signaled for help and kept pressure on its tow line to delay the sinking of the barge.
The tug Cascade motored out from Lorain and rescued the Republic’s eight crew members.
Once the waters calmed, salvage operations began.
Shipbuilders would remove rigging, masts or any equipment they could reuse, the Wachters said. They surmised a barge carrying a crane scooped out as much coal as it could reach.
Even as the Republic sat on the lake bottom, its masts still were visible above the surface of the water.
In the 1800s, shippers and harbor masters understood that a ship on the bottom of the lake would reduce the available depth for other vessels, especially in shallow areas of Lake Erie, the Wachters said.
They needed a way to ensure shipwrecks did not create more hazards for other vessels.
“If you go down in the western or central basin of this lake, you’re still a hazard to navigation,” Michael Wachter said. “If I hit you hard enough to put a hole in the bottom of my boat, I’m going down.”
“So they would dynamite these in shallow water,” Georgann Wachter said. “There are many instances of a vessel coming along and hitting a sunk vessel and sinking themselves. They dynamited the heck out of this one.”
The Republic has its windlass intact. Its rudder is off the stern, and an anchor remains attached, which is surprising because anchors often would be pulled up and reused, Georgann Wachter said.
“The middle section of the ship, you’re going to see her centerboard and a few railing posts,” Michael Wachter said. “But at the bow and stern, there’s a lot of boat left.”
At 40 feet deep, the Republic is shallow enough even for novice divers to reach. For viewers on land in contemporary Lorain, the Republic’s masts sticking up would be visible from the East Pier and Jackalope Lakeside restaurant, the Wachters said.
It’s entirely possible other divers have known about the Republic, but never publicly revealed the location for others, the Wachters said.
Using sonar to scan the sea bottom, they found the vessel and dove to it on July 4. When their documentation is complete, they intend to publish the GPS coordinates so other divers can find the wreck.
Publicizing the sunken boats helps the dive industry and local economy when people seek them out, the Wachters said.
Incidentally, the tug Cascade, which rescued the crew of the Republic, itself sank in January 1904 in 30 feet of water about 200 feet west of the Lorain Lighthouse break wall. The crew made it back to shore.
“Each one of them has its own story,” Michael Wachter said. “And what truly fascinates us is not so much the wreck – because after you’ve dove one a couple of times, it’s just a pile of boards on the bottom of the lake, frankly – but the story.”
Information from: The Morning Journal, http://www.morningjournal.com