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A rare 300-foot whaleback boat was found at the bottom of Lake Superior

A rare boat, one of the last to be found, has been discovered at the bottom of Lake Superior in Michigan.

Researchers from the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society found the vessel measuring 292 feet 35 miles offshore of Vermilion Point. They confirmed that it was Barge 129, one 44-foot whaleback. The whaleback was a distinctive vessel that traveled the Great Lakes in the late 19th century. It had unusual sides and pointed bows, which were said to resemble the snouts of pigs.

Bruce Lynn, executive director of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society, stated that although there are many wrecks, some have certain characteristics or features that make them desirable. This was the last whaleback vessel that had ever been found to have sunk on the Great Lakes. We wanted to find it for a long time.

Barge 129 was swept away by a strong storm on October 13, 1902, while being town by another boat. The towline broke, leading to a collision between both vessels. Crewmembers were able to evacuate safely to another boat. However, Barge 129 sank to more than 650 feet below the surface, where it has remained for 120+ years.

Discoveries from the bottom

Researchers could only identify the ship using sonar and a remotely operated vehicle, ROV (with high-intensity lighting & cameras) in August. This was close to the anniversary of the sinking.

In 2021, the society took its first sonar photo of the vessel. They also captured eight other wrecks in varying locations which they are currently trying to identify this year. The researchers suspected they were looking at a whale back after examining the imagery. However, many angles made them doubtful. They were finally able to see it close up with an underwater drone a year later.

“Once the ROV was down, we were able to get up close to the bow and there was no doubt. It was obvious that the bow was there. Lynn stated that we knew what we had and that it was very exciting. “We were the first to see it in more than 120 years.

Barge 129 was the last known whaleback shipwreck on Great Lakes. The SS Meteor is the only remaining intact whaleback and is moored in Superior, Wisconsin as a museum exhibit.

The underwater ROV captures Lynn and Darryl Ertel (the society’s director for marine operations) exploring different areas of the ship using the drone. Lynn discusses the towlines still running through the bow and gives more insight into what happened minutes before Barge 129 sank.

Lynn stated, “A large part of our job is telling stories and keeping alive the history of these shipwrecks we’re finding.” It’s not a shipwreck most people know about, even in the Great Lakes. This unique vessel is now our opportunity to tell its history and story as we move forward.

Since 1978, society has been focusing primarily on shipwrecks within the region. It hopes to include these findings in its Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum. This will allow the society to continue to educate people about Barge 129’s history and its impact on the history of Michigan.

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