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The hunt for sunken ships at the bottom of Lake Superior

Shipwreck hunter Merryman is perhaps, looking beyond Superior for 2017, possibly on the hunt to find the R.G. Coburn, which rests on the bottom of Lake Huron, somewhere.

Shipwreck hunter Merryman is perhaps, looking beyond Superior for 2017, possibly on the hunt to find the R.G. Coburn, which rests on the bottom of Lake Huron, somewhere.

The steamer Hiram W. Sibley tugged the old schooner loaded with coal through nervous waters. The plan was to escort the 186-foot Antelope to Ashland, Wisconsin, where her cargo would offload. The Sibley would go on to Duluth. 

Winds were noticeable, but far from punishing on Oct. 7, 1897 as the pair traveled about 75 miles east of Duluth. The Antelope, built in 1861 and considered an ancient mariner by that point, couldn't withstand the stress.

Seams in its wooden bottom cracked. Pumps couldn't keep up with the deluge. Sibley crewmen severed the towline. The Antelope's crew abandoned ship. Men from both boats watched the watery undertaker receive the dying vessel.  

Unknown and unseen was the boat's grave for 119 years. That was until a group of shipwreck hunters discovered the Antelope 300 feet down near the Apostle Islands this fall.

The ship had aged well. Its hull was noticeably intact. Two of its three masts were still standing. Its wheel and rudder were broken off, laying alongside the wooden husk. According to Fridley's Ken Merryman, who'd been looking for the Antelope for years, it's easily one of the best preserved wrecks on Lake Superior.

"We know from experience, ships carrying grain or coal, more buoyant materials than, say, ore or steel rails, won't split open when they hit the bottom," he says. "Since the Antelope was carrying coal, we guessed it might be in pretty good shape, which is why we decided to search for it." 

History, novelty, and possibility are the sirens for Merryman and Nick Lintgen of New Hope. This year has been an exceptionally productive one for the underwater explorers. They were able to locate two previously undiscovered wrecks. The Antelope was actually the second. 

"Some of these boats have great stories of loss and tragedy and heroism, and to be able to touch that is pretty neat," says Merryman. "Some of them are mysteries. Some are just great examples of what kind of boats there were throughout history."  

There's about 350 wrecks on Superior. Maybe 30 of which remain undiscovered. Before launching a new hunt, these men research the sinking, identify a search area, and "mow the lawn."  

"That's what we call it because wreck hunting is mostly about as exciting as mowing the lawn," Merryman says. "It's often days and days and days of boredom." 

The hunters took that M.O. this summer. Using old charts and historical accounts, the searchers were close enough to the wreck of the J.S. Seaverns that sonar confirmed they'd found its 132-year-old resting place.

About 60 passengers and crew were on board the 130-foot Seaverns in May 1884 when it struck rock outside a remote port 100 miles north of Sault Ste. Marie. Everyone on board survived. So did some of what it carried.

A wood planing machine that was likely being transported to a lumber yard is still there. Dishes, some still stacked in cupboards, stayed too. Anchors sit on the deck. The wheel leans on the hull. Some of the passenger cabins are largely intact. One houses bunks and a sink stand. They also discovered a heating stove.     

"A lot of times wrecks, depending if they sank in a storm, water depth, the time that's elapsed, all you'll find are pieces left scattered on the bottom," says Lintgen. "To find one intact is great. To find stuff still on it that was part of its cargo, and its from the 1800s, is especially unique."

Merryman is just starting to eye potential wreck sites for 2017.

The 193-steamer R.G. Coburn might be one. More than 30 passengers and crew drowned in 1871 when a gale ransacked the vessel, which was carrying wheat, flour, and ore.

Another could be the James Caruthers. The Great Lakes Storm of 1913 claimed the 529-freighter and its 22-person crew. How the boat, which was new, sank remains a mystery. Being able to explain that is tempting, Merryman admits. 

"That would be a good, but most likely improbable, one to find," he says. "That's the thing. You don't know. But to be able to touch a piece of history like that that nobody has, it's a part of why we keep doing this."