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Hunting for shipwrecks: Group finds evidence, location of Ontario that sank in 1927

Randy Beebe of Duluth (from left), Ken Merryman of Minneapolis and Jerry Eliason of Cloquet talk earlier this month about finding the wreck of the Ontario off the Apostle Islands this year.Clint Austin | Forum Communications1 / 3
The Ontario is seen during its days as a railroad car ferry in this undated postcard. The 297-foot steel ship, built in 1891, was later converted to a barge and sank in a storm off the Apostle Islands in 1927. A group of shipwreck hunters say they found the wreck earlier this year. C. Patrick Labadie Collection / Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, Alpena, Mich. 2 / 3
Ernest Ludwig of Spooner, then 76, talks in 1978 about surviving the wreck of the barge Ontario off the Apostle Islands in 1927. Ludwig narrowly escaped being pulled underwater when the barge sank in a Lake Superior storm. 1978 file / Superior Telegram 3 / 3

By Andrew Krueger

Forum Communications

DULUTH — In the dark of night in the teeth of a Lake Superior gale just over 85 years ago, a sailor named Ernest Ludwig stood on the bow of a sinking barge, hatchet in hand, prepared to cut the line linking his foundering vessel to its straining tug.

With a single swing, Ludwig severed the 2-inch cable. The barge dropped beneath his feet into the turbulent lake with its cargo of pulpwood and — reportedly — 10 cases of illegal Scotch whiskey being smuggled from Canada.

Ludwig was rescued from the vortex created by the sinking ship, but the barge — the Ontario — wasn’t seen again. Until this year.

A group of shipwreck hunters have found what all evidence suggests is the Ontario, or what’s left of it, resting in 450 feet of water about a mile and a half off the shore of Outer Island in Wisconsin’s Apostle Islands.

It’s not a showpiece wreck, by any means. For starters, the 297-foot-long Ontario was a utilitarian vessel and had been further stripped down to serve as a barge. It’s sitting at a depth that pretty much places it beyond the reach of divers. And the vast majority of the wreck is buried in muck.

“If it’s an intact wreck in reasonably shallow water, sitting upright on the bottom, then you can tell instantly that it’s a wreck” when searching with side-scan sonar, said Jerry Eliason of Cloquet, part of the group that had looked for the Ontario on and off for years. “But then there’s some that are very subtle.”

“This one was subtle,” added group member Randy Beebe of Duluth.

A dark and stormy night

The storm that claimed the Ontario was anything but subtle.

The Ontario, a steel vessel, was built in 1891 for the Canadian Pacific Railway and served as a railroad car ferry for many years between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, according to the Alpena County (Mich.) Public Library’s Great Lakes Maritime Database.

In the 1920s it was converted to a barge and started hauling pulpwood out of Port Arthur, Ontario — now part of Thunder Bay. The ship left Port Arthur on Oct. 12, 1927, bound for Ashland, under the tow of the powerful tug Butterfield. Ludwig, a fireman who stoked the barge’s boilers, was one of a crew of five.

In addition to tons of pulpwood covering the decks, Ludwig said in a 1978 interview with the Superior Telegram, the ship in that era of Prohibition carried cases of Scotch whiskey being smuggled into the U.S. by another crew member.

A stiff wind built into a storm during the voyage and waves crashed over the deck, washing away pulpwood and eventually swamping the boilers that provided power to the barge’s pumps and steering. The Butterfield struggled to tow the zigzagging vessel.

At 3 a.m. Oct. 13 off Outer Island, about 40 miles northeast of Ashland, the storm picked up and the Ontario started going down. The Butterfield started reeling in the towline to draw the Ontario closer. The crew of the barge donned life preservers and tried to launch a life raft, only to see it swept away.

Four of the Ontario’s crew eventually jumped from the barge’s bow onto the tug’s stern, while Ludwig remained behind to cut the cable as hatch covers exploded behind him.

“The barge died in the water and the tug leaped ahead the instant the cable parted,” Ludwig recalled in 1978. “Suddenly I found myself in the cold lake being pulled down by the barge which was sinking under my feet.”

He reached once for a lifeline tossed from the tug, but missed. The second time, Ludwig caught hold and was hauled out of the vortex. He was knocked out momentarily when his head hit the tug’s stern fender — but he was safe.

“I was too thankful to be on the deck of the tug — bruised or not — to complain,” he said.

Searching the depths

Starting in the early 1990s, Eliason and others added the Ontario to the list of wrecks on their search list. Why the Ontario?

“You rate a wreck based upon its findability, meaning: Is there enough information out there to get you in the ballpark?” Eliason said. “Is the wreck of historic interest — is there something unique about it? Might it be shallow enough to dive? … Is there a good chance it’s intact?”

With the Ontario, Ludwig’s printed recollections and other information provided a good starting point. While searching for another wreck in the vicinity, the Marquette, the group — including Eliason, Beebe, Ken Merryman of Minneapolis, Kraig Smith of Rice Lake, Wis., and Eliason’s son, Jarrod, who lives in Colorado — would take occasional jaunts to Outer Island.

The group went through a years-long dry spell. Then they upgraded their technology, including a side-scan sonar unit designed by Jarrod Eliason. And in 2004 and 2005, their dedication paid off with a rush of activity: a half-dozen wrecks located in western Lake Superior, among them the Marquette and the legendary Benjamin Noble.

But the Ontario remained elusive. The group thought that perhaps witnesses to the sinking fibbed about its exact location because of the illegal whiskey on board.

Following a grid pattern, towing the sonar, they kept hunting a few days a year. They used the newer sonar to re-cover territory previously searched. And finally, three years ago, they spotted an anomaly on the lake bottom.

Is it the Ontario?

The anomaly was an isolated “crater” about 300 feet long by 50 feet wide in an otherwise undisturbed field of muck. For a couple of years, further exploration with cameras failed to turn up signs of a ship. In the vast, dark depths of Lake Superior, spotting anything with a tiny camera tethered to a 450-foot line requires patience, skill and some luck.

Then this year, on April 22 aboard Smith’s boat, the camera finally delivered images of a wrecked ship. A ship buried deep, perhaps as much as 95 percent, in mud.

In photos of what little of the ship remained uncovered, the searchers spotted a somewhat-unique circular hatch that seemed to match one in archive images of the Ontario.

More importantly, “the location is exactly where they said it went down,” Merryman said.

“And it’s the only bottom disturbance for a couple miles in each direction,” Eliason said. Aside from the Ontario, there just aren’t any other documented “lost” wrecks that it could be. While not definitive, the evidence strongly points to the Ontario.

A large wreck being so completely buried in muck may be unique in the Great Lakes, Beebe said. It’s not clear if the barge was driven that deep into the mud when it hit bottom, or if perhaps currents deposited sediment around the vessel in the decades after it sank.

The depth and condition of the vessel was a little disappointing to the group, especially for those who might have wanted to dive on a newly discovered wreck.

“If we’d have known this wreck was going to be like this, would we have spent the time and effort to look for it that we did? Probably not. But you don’t know” until you try, Eliason said.

The lure of the search

Over the course of more than 15 years, group members — pooling their assorted equipment, boats and talents — spent a total of perhaps 30 days searching for the Ontario. Much of that time was hour after tedious hour of scanning a barren lake bottom. Why make the effort?

“It’s the combination of the history and the camaraderie and the technical challenges and the time on the water that just makes the whole endeavor worthwhile,” Beebe said.

Ludwig’s tale of survival, in particular, provided key clues for where to look — and brought the wreck alive.

Back in 1978, Ludwig told the Telegram that several days after the Ontario sank, he and his shipmates tested their life preservers.

“We tied rocks to them, and then we tossed them in the lake,” he said. “Every one of them sank to the bottom.”

With that on his mind, after one more rough trip on another barge, he gave up life as a mariner and moved to Spooner. He died in 1982 at age 80.

“I just regret not having had a chance to talk to Ernie. That would have been fun,” Eliason said. “We needed to find it for Ernie.”

And now that the Ontario apparently has been found, and erased from the list of “lost” wrecks?

“We’ve fulfilled the addiction to find it,” Eliason said. “Now we can get on to something else.”

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