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Missing ship discovered after 130 years at bottom of Lake Superior

The 172-foot schooner-barge Atlanta was lost in a storm on May 4, 1891.

She was hauling her valuable cargo across the big lake when every sailor's nightmare came true: a brutal storm hit, forcing the crew of the Atlanta to abandon ship, and sending the 172-foot schooner-barge into the chilly depths below — never to be seen again. 

Or so the world thought. 

This past week, the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society (GLSHS) announced the discovery of the Atlanta in 650 feet of water 35 miles off Deer Park, Michigan.

According to a news release, the vessel was helping transport a load of coal in tow of the steamer Wilhelm when a northwest gale hit. The towline snapped, GLSHS says, "and with no sails, the Atlanta was soon at the mercy of the lake, and the crew took to the lifeboat."

The sailors didn't fare much better after their escape. After rowing for "several hours," they finally came within sight of the Crisp Point Life-Saving Station; sadly, however, their small boat overturned in the landing attempt, and only two of the crew safely made it to shore, GLSHS says.

The vessel's next chapter began in 2021, when the organization undertook a large-scale mapping effort to search the lake bottom for long-lost shipwrecks. Atlanta was discovered with the help of sonar and later confirmed via a remote-operated (ROV) to be the long-lost ship. 

The video below shows the moments the ROV made contact with the wreck:

As the footage shows, the ship is remarkably well preserved, with the gold lettering of its name-board still visible and gleaming in the light of the ROV.

What's more, the wreckage confirms the account of the survivors, who reported that the vessel's masts broke off during the storm. Indeed, the ROV video proves that "all three masts broke off flush with the deck and are nowhere to be found," GLSHS. 

“No one has to ask where the Atlanta is anymore,” said Darryl Ertel, GLSHS director of marine operations, in the release. 

“It is rare that we find a shipwreck that so clearly announces what it is and the name-board of the Atlanta really stands out,” GLSHS Executive Director Bruce Lynn said. “It is truly ornate, and still beautiful after 130 years on the bottom of Lake Superior.”

Per the Detroit Free Press, the GLSHS is asking relatives and descendants of the crew to come forward. 

"If anyone is seeing this, reading this, and you are one of the family members — a great- and great-great grandchild of the crew — contact us," a GLSHS spokesperson told the paper.   

MPR reports that the society's mapping effort last year led to the discover of 10 wrecks overall, including five that have yet to be identified. The station says the shipwreck hunters "ran out of time last season," but plan to revisit those unidentified wrecks this year. 

The society operates the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum in Paradise, Michigan.  

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