Lake Superior shipwreck believed to be Henry B. Smith

By Kristen Butler,  |  June 11, 2013 at 8:18 AM
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In 1913, a powerful November storm rocked the Great Lakes, and as other ships stayed safe in the harbor, the freighter Henry B. Smith took on a load of iron ore and set off for Cleveland, never to be seen again.

Unidentified debris washed ashore for several weeks, and two bodies were found over the following months. A sensational claim made headlines in 1914 saying a message in a bottle described the ship breaking in two 12 miles east of Marquette.

One hundred years later, shipwreck hunter Jerry Eliason and his crew believe the Henry B. Smith has been found.

"While we still don’t have absolute proof it’s the Henry B. Smith, it’s the only ship in the area of that size that had iron ore," said Ken Merryman, who was among the group who have spent decades searching for wrecks in the lakes.

Eliason is secretive about the team's method for finding the wreck, in hopes of finding more wrecks this way. He said the group determined a search area, and located the Smith just 20 minutes after dropping their sonar unit into the water.

For many years, researchers would "mow the lawn" by boating a grid pattern over the lake with the sonar. It would take hours, months, years to find anything.

"A number of wrecks we’ve found have been over the span of 20 years searching, multiple times a year," Kraig Smith said. "Going and finding a wreck 20-some miles offshore in the span of a couple hours is extraordinary."

Eliason’s wife, Karen, a software engineer, played a key role in analyzing data from government agencies and archives, and his son Jarrod developed the sonar unit they used.

"My son says I’m a shipwreck savant and my wife is a computer savant," Eliason said. "It was a matter of processing the data, writing the formulas."

After finding the wreck roughly 20 miles off the shore of Marquette, Michigan, the crew dropped a camera down on a 500-foot tether. The camera did not capture the name on the side of the ship, but other features including a unique "flying bridge" have convinced the crew that it's the Smith.

It appears the ship is broken in the middle, with the forward part still intact. "It’s a beautiful wreck," Merryman said. More dives are planned this summer to gather more information.

"It’s the 100th anniversary," Merryman said. "This would be a great memorial, a commemoration of all the people who died in the storm."

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