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Rare 300-foot whaleback boat discovered at the bottom of Lake Superior

<i>Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society</i><br/>Barge 129 sank to the bottom of Michigan's Lake Superior in 1902 after a strong storm snapped the towline securing it to another boat.
Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society
Barge 129 sank to the bottom of Michigan's Lake Superior in 1902 after a strong storm snapped the towline securing it to another boat.

By Taylor Nicioli, CNN

The wreckage of a rare boat — one of the last of its kind to be located — has been identified at the bottom of Lake Superior in Michigan.

Researchers with the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society discovered the 292-foot vessel 35 miles off Vermilion Point and confirmed it is Barge 129, one of only 44 whalebacks ever made. A distinctive vessel that plied the Great Lakes in the late 19th century, the whaleback had an unusual design of curved sides and pointed bows said to look like the snout of a pig.

“There are a lot of wrecks out there, but some of them have these features, or characteristics, that make us want to find them more, and this was definitely one of them, because they’re very unusual ships,” said Bruce Lynn, the executive director for the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society. “The fact that this was the last whaleback vessel to sink on the Great Lakes that hadn’t been discovered, this is one we wanted to find for a very long time.”

Barge 129 sank when it encountered a strong storm while in tow of another boat on October 13, 1902. The towline snapped, causing a collision between the two vessels. Crewmembers evacuated safely to the other boat, but Barge 129 descended to depths of over 650 feet, where it has remained for 120 years.

Underwater revelations

It was only by using a sonar system and a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) with high-intensity lighting and cameras that the researchers were able to find and identify the ship in August, fairly close to the anniversary of its sinking.

The society captured its first sona image of the vessel in 2021, along with eight other wrecks at varying locations that they have been working to identify this year. Examining the imagery, the researchers had a suspicion that they were looking at a whaleback, but there were several angles that had made them skeptical. Over a year later, they were able to view it up close with an underwater drone.

“Once we were able to get the ROV down on it, when we got up near the bow, there was no question. That bow was unmistakable. We knew what we had, and that was really exciting,” Lynn said. “We were the first human eyes to see it in over 120 years.”

Barge 129 was the last whaleback shipwreck in the Great Lakes that had not been discovered. There is only one intact whaleback still in existence, the SS Meteor, which is moored as a museum exhibit in Superior, Wisconsin.

Watching the footage captured by the underwater ROV, viewers can hear Lynn and Darryl Ertel, the society’s director of marine operations, as they explore different parts of the unusual ship with the drone. Lynn describes the towlines that were still strung through the bow, revealing more clues as to what was happening minutes before Barge 129 sank.

“A big part of what we do is telling the stories and keeping the history alive of these various shipwrecks that we’re finding,” Lynn said. “It’s not a shipwreck that most people have heard of, even here in the Great Lakes. Finding this unique of a vessel … now gives us this ability to tell its story and history as we go forward.”

The society, which since 1978 has focused primarily on shipwrecks in the region, is hoping to incorporate these findings into its Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, which can continue to enlighten people about Barge 129’s story and its impact on the history of Michigan.

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