Green moss covers the rotting white oak timbers of a ghost ship at the bottom of Thunder Bay, seven miles off Thunder Bay Island and abreast of Alpena.... Although the passenger list was lost with the ship, it is believed nearly 100 persons perished. The bodies of only two were recovered. And in later years 10 died in efforts to recover the ship's cargo valued at $600,000. The Pewabic went down into some 180 feet of water in a collision with a sister ship, the Meteor, on Aug. 9, 1865.
The ships, owned by the Pioneer Lake Superior Line, were two of the finest and newest vessels on the Great Lakes. Their captains were eager to outdo each other and, as is the custom whenever the ships met on the Great Lakes, greetings were exchanged and packages and messages were thrown from one ship to the other as passengers and crews crowded the rails. The Pewabic passed through the Soo Locks and headed down Lake Huron. Aboard were soldiers from the Mackinac Island garrison, having been relieved of duty as the Civil War had ended just a few months earlier.
There was a slight fog and mist but the lake was not rough. The Meteor was sighted coming up the lake from Detroit. The two ships exchanged signals. A dance was in progress on the Meteor and preparations were being made for a dance aboard the Pezvabic as dinner had been just completed.
When the ships were only 20 feet apart, an officer on the Pewabic became confused and gave the wrong order to the wheelsman who swung the ship directly into the path of the Meteor. The Meteor's prow crashed into the Pewabic about 20 feet aft of the bow, directly under the pilot house, and nearly cut the ship in two. The Pewabic rolled away from the Meteor, exposing the large hole in her side. She sank in five minutes as a heavy copper and iron cargo pulled her down. Although badly damaged, the Meteor stayed afloat and its crew was able to save many from the Pewabic.
There were many acts of heroism. One man aboard the Pewabic picked up his child in nightclothes and handed her over the rail to the Meteor as her prow clung to the hole in the Pewabic He turned back to save his wife in the same manner but they were both drowned. Captain Thomas Wilson of the Meteor later adopted the child, never learning her real name. Some passengers were thrown from the decks into the water and were dragged under by others trying to get help. Many were trapped below decks and never had an opportunity to escape. The lifesaving station at Thunder Bay Island effected some rescues, picking up chiefly members of the crew.
Pewabic Captain George McKay was one of the last to escape the sinking ship. As the water reached the deck where he was trying to help passengers to safety, he grabbed a rope thrown from the Meteor. As the ship sank beneath him, Captain McKay was hoisted to the deck of the Meteor.
Passengers picked up by the Meteor still were not safe. A fire broke out in her cargo and pumps were going all night to keep her afloat. At daybreak, the Meteor Burned Over all the rescued and some of her own passengers to the passing propeller steamer Mohawk which was downbound to Detroit.
The Meteor continued on to the Soo and there at the dock the fire got out of hand. The ship years later was converted to a barge.
The memory of the disaster might have faded if it had not carried a valuable cargo. Lost treasure exercises a strange fascination over men's minds and the Pewabic was no exception. Her $600,000 cargo, including more than 250 tons of pure copper and $40,000 in a strongbox, was a lure that some could not resist.
Ten divers in all went to their deaths in efforts to salvage the cargo. Famous diver Billy Pike was the first victim, in late 1865. He was brought up dead from the terrific pressure. Several expeditions between 1880 and 1884 were unsuccessful and three divers were killed.
The next effort was in 1891, when a party from Ashland, Wis. made repeated attempts to reach the wreck with divers. One did, but he died in the depths.
Captain John Persons of Alpena, who was a boy of 14 living on Thunder Bay Island when the Pewabic sank, helped Worden G. Smith locate the wreck in 1895. Smith, of the American Wrecking and Salvage Company, invented a new type of diving bell capable of holding several men and permitting considerable movement. Five men in the bell were killed attempting to reach the Pewabic in her grave and the company gave up its efforts. Into the 20th century the Pewabic lay untouched, far beneath the currents and agitation of the great storms. Then in 1917, B. F. Leavitt of Toledo arrived with a new type diving suit, capable of descending to a depth of 300 feet. His diver found the Pewabic's rigging and structure still intact. Skeletons were found in the cabins, trunks open and the garments of the 1860's hanging on the bulkheads. The pure cold water had preserved all but the bodies. Cheese and quarters of beef were in the steward's pantry.
From the staterooms and saloons he brought up souvenirs that brought high prices on the Alpena shore. There were rings, watches, an ancient revolver, gold coins and walking sticks. The safe was recovered but of its $40,000 content only one $5 bill and one $1 bill remained intact. In all, between 70 and 72 tons of copper were raised and 40 to 50 tons of iron ore. Overall value is placed at $40,000.
In recent years, skin divers have been active near the wreckage. But most are content to let the Pewabic lie untouched. The ghost ship of Thunder Bay has suffered enough.
The Alpena News
August 7, 1965