Sunday, September 16, 2007

She lay hidden for 100 years

They began their search of the depths for answers in the loss of one and discovered instead, another that had always puzzled historians. They will have to wait a bit longer though, to see if the lake and this wreck will give up those answers.

A team with the Great Lakes Historical Society had set out searching for the freighter D M Clemson that had sunk in 1908, while transporting coal to Duluth, Minn from Lorain OH, on Lake Superior. She cleared the Sault Ste Marie locks with the steamer J H Brown at 9:30 am on November 30 and the last anyone saw of her was on Dec 1 near Whitefish Point when the two ships parted company.

The ship they found in August 2007, 460 feet deep and eight miles north of Deer Park, a village in Michigan's eastern Upper Peninsula, was the Cyprus. The 420 foot-long freighter had sunk October 11 1907 while carrying iron ore from Superior WI to Buffalo NY, in what was not considered much of a gale. She as well had puzzled historians becasue she had been only 21 days old and sank on only her second voyage on the lake. Unlike the Clemson, who went down with all her crew, there had been one survivor from the sinking of the Cyprus.

The Cyprus had been built in Lorain OH and launched on August 17 1907 and was described as seaworthy as any vessel that had built in a lake shipyard. The gale that she ran into was considered to be so moderate that only small vessels had sought shelter while the big steamers continued on their journey.

Charles G Pitz stumbled ashore some seven hours after the sinking and his is the only record of the event. Pitz, the second mate, stated that the Cyprus was pounded by northwesterly waves and had gradually developed a worsening list throughout the afternoon. The engines finally stopped and crew members headed for the lifeboats with lifejackets on. Pitz, the captain, F B Huyck and George Thorne, the first mate and watchman gathered near a forward lifeboat.

Pitz then stated that at 7:45 pm, the Cyprus capsized and sank, throwing the three into the water. They climbed aboard the raft and by 2 am, after overturning several times, they were within 300 feet of shore. He washed ashore, cold and exhausted and continued a long career as a mariner until 1961, when he died. All but two of the 22 crew member's bodies were recovered, including Thorne, who was found still strapped in the liferaft.

What caused her to sink has been a matter of debate for years beginning with news reports that speculated the water had entered the hold through the hatches, wetting the ore and causing it to shift. Pitz had insisted that the hatches were properly closed but his great-niece Ann Sanborn states that she believes that it had. The captain of a steamer that had passed close to the Cyprus before she sank had said that she was trailing a reddish wake. That would indicate that water had entered the cargo hold and was either seeping back out or was being pumped out.

Fred Stonehouse, marine historian and author offered another theory which stated that the Cyprus was doomed by engine or rudder failure and was unable to steer out of the troughs that can capsize a ship. Tom Farnquist, executive director of the society, said that they would be sending the underwater cameras back to the site for further study. The two previous inspections have shown that half the pilot house is missing and that wreckage is strewn 270 off the bow. He added that the location that Pitz had estimated the Cyprus had gone down in, was 10 miles further from shore than where she was found and he feels that is why she had not been found sooner.

The 5,530 ton steamship D M Clemson was the ship the society had been searching for when they discovered the Cyprus. She was the largest U S ship lost worldwide in 1908 and there were no survivors. Capt S R Chamberlain had chosen the southern and most direct route to Duluth and headed west with the Clemson when the two ships had parted. The Brown headed north around Isle Royale feeling that it offered more protection from fierce gale winds that could spring up that time of year.

The Clemson had been built in 1903 and at 468 feet in length, she was considered to be among the giants of her day. Nothing is known of her journey after that but weeks after that final sighting, debris such as flotsam, pieces of the ship's cabin, 23 of her red wooden hatch covers and several bodies washed ashore along the 40 mile stretch of coastline between Crisp Point and Grand Marais. Only the bodies of two of the 24 crewmembers were recovered, watchman Simon Dunn of Dublin Ireland and second mate Charles Woods, of Marine City MI.

The debate as to what happened to her continues and as with the Cyprus, many believe that the hatches failed in some way. Some pointed to them washing ashore as proof that they had failed and she sank. Others believe that they could have been blown off from the air compressed in the holds when she broke apart. Whatever the cause, the fact that few bodies of the crew were spotted or recovered, leads many to believe that she went down too fast for them to put on lifevests.

Probably the most famous of the thousands of wrecks in the Great Lakes is that of the S S Edmund Fitzgerald, who sank in 1975 and was brought to the attention thousands by Gordon Lightfoot's 1976 song. She was built in 1957 with the stipulation that she be the largest on the Great Lakes and was launched on June 8 1958 and named after the president of Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance, her owner. At 729 feet in length, she was the largest on the lakes until the 1970's and spent 17 years carrying talconite from Duluth MN to other ports along the lakes.

The Fitzgerald left Superior WI on November 9 1975 enroute to Zugg Island near Detroit MI with a full load of talconite. She traveled ahead of the Arthur M Anderson and they both sought shelter along the Canadian coast when they encountered a massive winter storm. The winds were reported at 50 mph and waves were at 35 feet. By November 10, the Fitzgerald had already suffered damage and began to run closer to the Anderson when at 7:10 pm, the Anderson reported to her that they had been hit by rogue waves. Ten minutes after that, the Anderson could neither raise her on the radio or find her on radar.

The Fitzgerald was first found by a U S Navy aircraft designed to locate submarines and in May of 1976, an unmanned U S navy submersable photographed the wreck. She lay in two large pieces in 530 feet of water and it is believed she broke apart when she hit the lake floor. The Coast Guard's report that her hatch closures were ineffective has been debated for years. The other explaination offered is that she may have run aground or scraped a shoal near Caribou Island without realizing it and she began to take on water through damage to the bottom of her hull. That will prove impossible to examine, since she is settled in the mud up to her load marks.

What seems to be the best explaination was put forth in a Discovery Channel investigation. They concluded that the Fitzgerald was likely severely damaged by the first two rogue waves and her radar was further damaged as well as the hatch covers. The third wave overwhelmed and sank her too quickly for any of the crew to escape.

The Fitzgerald, the newly discovered Cyprus and the still missing Clemson are among the approximately 6,000 ships lost in the Great Lakes since 1878, many without a trace. The continued developement of technology and the quest for answers will cetainly bring new wrecks into view in the coming years and possibly answer decades old questions of what had happened to brave family members who sailed the Great Lakes.

Efforts began in 2005 to establish in Washington D C, a permanent memorial to all the lost Great Lakes mariners. At Mariner's Church in Detroit, the bell no longer rings 29 times for the men lost on the Fitzgerald but instead rings in memory of all 6,000 lives lost, five times for the 5 lakes, the sixth for the St Clair and Detroit rivers, the seventh for the St Lawrence Seaway and the eighth time for military personnel whose lives were lost.

Of note: photographs of the Cyprus ( facing left ), as she was in 1907 & is today, the D M Clemson ( facing right ) and the S S Edmund Fitzgerald ( color ).


Luanne said...

Hi ,I am the Great Granddaughter of James J Norcross. He lost his life when the Cyprus sunk in 1907 Oct.11th. It is so very exciting to my family that the Cyprus has been found Yea, I am so pleased. I guess that the powers that be don't know his family is still living . His granddaughter is my Mom, she is still alive 76 yrs old now. No one ever contacted any of us, I have had to scan the internet day and night to find any of this on my grandfathers ship. LUANNE IN CA

Luanne said...

Hi ,I am the Great Grandaughter of James J Norcross. He lost his life when the Cyprus sunk in 1907 Oct.11th. It is so very exciting to my family that the Cyprus has been found Yea, I am so pleased. I guess that the powers that be don't know his family is still living . His granddaughter is my Mom, she is still alive 76 yrs old now. No one ever contacted any of us, I have had to scan the internet day and night to find any of this on my grandfathers ship. LUANNE IN CA

Val said...

:) Luanne, thank you for giving me a smile this evening. I'm glad that I may have given you some of the answers you have searched for so diligently. I can only hope that by contacting the group who had discovered the Cyprus, they will be able to give you more information on what they have found so far, and what they may discover in the future.

William Wallace said...

When my family visited ThunderBay, Ontario, back in 1980, I photographed an abandoned steel ore carrier with the name clearly marked on her bow "D.M. Clemson." Her hull was rust colored but her forward pilot house was still painted white... She was docked on a river surrounded by trees and bush.

William Scott Wallace, Ph.D.

Devon Smith said...

just to clarify- i just finished reading of a DM CLEMSON that was a different vessel-not built until 1917 and was scrapped at THUNDER BAY ONTARIO....