Search for a Century-Old Shipwreck Turns Up One Even Older

In September, a Discovery Channel film crew traveled to Paradise, Mich., searching for two French naval ships that disappeared in 1918. But on a voyage to find them, they stumbled upon another shipwreck that was four decades older.

Josh Gates, the host of “Expedition Unknown,” and a team of researchers instead spotted the Satellite, a tugboat also lost in Lake Superior that had not been seen for 142 years, the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society announced this week.

“Finding the Satellite was hugely exciting and unexpected,” said Mr. Gates.

On June 21, 1879, the 15-year-old Satellite was on a routine trip to Duluth, Minn., from Detroit, and towing four schooner barges when it sprang a leak.

“We commenced bailing and pumping and try to stop the leak, but it was no use,” the ship’s captain, Joshua B. Markee, wrote in a letter dated June 23, 1879. “She gained on us an inch a minute,” he wrote, adding that “there was no logs” in “the way we came.”

Mr. Markee and his crew of five were able to keep the Satellite afloat for about two hours before abandoning the ship, allowing it to sink in around 300 feet of water.

The ship’s sinking had many witnesses, but its cause is still up for debate, said Bruce Lynn, the executive director at the historical society’s museum in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. One account suggested that the Satellite suffered a mechanical problem, while another swore it struck a log.

Now more than a century later, the tugboat was found lying at the bottom of Lake Superior. The Great Lake, which borders Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota, is the resting place of around 350 ships, at least half of which remain undiscovered, including the two ships Mr. Gates was hoping to find: the Inkerman and the Cerisoles.

Those vessels, which were minesweepers, saw a much grimmer fate than the Satellite. The naval ships were built in Michigan for the French military during World War I but disappeared during a storm in 1918 on their maiden voyage to Europe through the Soo Locks, which enable travel between the Great Lakes, Mr. Gates said. The two captains and their crews of dozens of French sailors were never found, making the shipwrecks some of Lake Superior’s deadliest.

“Almost nothing was ever found from them; it’s like they went down without a trace,” said Mr. Gates, which meant they were the perfect subjects for his show about puzzling stories and unsolved mysteries. “They just sort of vanished off the face of the earth,” he said.

The minesweepers and the Satellite were about the same in length, said Mr. Lynn, prompting the hope that the researchers might have finally located one of the minesweepers in September after decades of searching. But when Darryl Ertel, the director of marine operations at the historical society, dropped a remotely operated vehicle, or R.O.V., on a promising sonar target, the Satellite’s hull gave it away. The minesweepers were made of steel, but the Satellite’s hull was wooden.

“It was considered a pretty staunch ship, so I think it was a big surprise to everybody when it sank,” said Mr. Lynn, adding that the Satellite went down on a calm and sunny day, so weather was not likely to have been a factor. The newspaper wrote that it was a “well-known river tug,” and word that it had sunk in Lake Superior started at the docks and “spread like wildfire” around Detroit.

Despite being a working tugboat, though, the Satellite was considered one of the most beautiful vessels on the Great Lakes, the historical society said. “It is said that her cabin and upper works were the most elaborate put upon a craft of her kind,” The Detroit Press and Tribune wrote at the time.

And the video of the Satellite wreck was cinematic, Mr. Gates said. Images from the R.O.V. showed the ship “sitting perfectly upright; it was almost like looking at a ship in a bottle,” he described. The team could even see a compass in the sand next to it, he said.

As the pursuit of the Inkerman and Cerisoles stretches on, locating the Satellite can be marked as an ancillary victory, though the source of the tugboat’s demise may never be determined.

As The Detroit Post and Tribune reported in the days that followed the Satellite’s wreck: “She was in good condition, and what could have caused her to sink is all guess work.”

That is what makes shipwrecks so alluring, said Mr. Gates: They’re frozen in time. “It connects us to the past in a really primal way,” he said.

Lauren McCarthy, a planning editor for live coverage at The Times, is on temporary assignment as a breaking-news reporter.
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