The Maritime History of the Great Lakes
John Breden (Schooner), U13933, sunk, 21 Jul 1899

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Port Huron, July 21. - The schr. JOHN BREDEN foundered on Lake Huron off Lexington in the gale today. Three of her crew were drowned. The only name known is that of Jane Connors, the woman cook. The crew were shipped here this morning before the BREDEN left for Bay City in tow of the tug WINSLOW. She was coal laden for that point from Ohio ports. The BREDEN went down in about 40 feet of water directly in the course of vessels on Lake Huron. Her spars project above the water, and are a dangerous obstruction to naviagtion.
      The BREDEN was built in 1867, and was owned by John J. Geghan, of Toledo. She was 319 gross tons and was worth about $4,000.
      Buffalo Morning Express
      July 22, 1899 9-3

      . . . . .

The schooner JOHN BREDEN foundered on Lake Huron off Lexington during Friday afternoon and three crewmwn were drowned. Two reached safety on shore. The BREDEN was loaded with coal from Ohio in tow of the tug WINSLOW for Bay City. She went down in 40 feet of water and her spars now project above the water.
      Port Huron Daily Times
      Saturday, July 22, 1899

The phone rang at 1:30 a.m., but Garry Biniecki was waiting for the call. Andy Donato, a Marysville diving buddy, was excited. After hours on his computer, he had finally translated the antiquated navigation points to coordinates they could use. He had pinpointed the location of the schooner John Breden, which sunk in a gale between Port Huron and Lexington in 1899.
"I have got it," he almost yelled. Binecki scrawled the numbers on a piece of paper.
Soon after sunrise that October morning, Biniecki, a Port Sanilac Dive shop owner, law enforcement officer and underwater archaeologist, set out with diver Nathan Butler on the boat the Huron Explorer, using a side-scanning sonar device and Donato's location, searching for wreckage. Within 5 hours, the side scanner blipped. It was a good sign. Biniecki and Butler returned to shore and called Donato and Debbie Biniecki, and the team went out to dive the location.
"We saw a school of shad there, and that's a good sign," said Donato. "Shad like to hang around structures."
Once underwater, they looked for anything that would indicate a sunken ship. The waters were astonishingly clear, said Biniecki, with 25 feet visibility.
Then Debbie Biniecki spotted the yellow ship's bell, tilted jauntily on a piece of the hull
on the lake's floor. "It's yellow, about one and a half feet in diameter," said Debbie Biniecki. "It is a ship's bell from the mast, perhaps a fog signal. We brushed the silt away to see if there was a name on it, but there wasn't."
It was Debbie who first stumbled upon the newspaper clipping that remarkably gave the compass points of the wreck's location.
She had been researching Lake Huron wrecks at the St. Clair County Public Library in Port Huron, and most of the stories gave vivid accounts of rescues and lives lost, but few details useful for locating the wrecks. When the Breden went down, its mast rose above the waters, creating a shipping hazard. The clipping was in a story issuing a warning to area mariners.
Near the bell, the divers spotted pieces of the hull. Over the next several months, they methodically searched and found the gunwales, the captain's wheel, a jug, a pulley, a 2,000-pound anchor with wood stock and a mast ring, said Debbie Biniecki.
Painstakingly, the team gridded the site with string and tape to methodically measure and record their findings. Donato, an underwater photographer, shot yards of film recording the artifacts found and the work in progress. "We try to leave everything in place so it can be photographed exactly the way it was found," said Biniecki.
Since then, the Biniecki's and Donato have held the site's exact location as a closely guarded secret as they and a team of student underwater archaeologists have explored the shipwreck. In late June or early July, they plan to release the coordinates, but only after they complete their archaeological mapping, documenting and an artifact inventory, and filed appropriate recovery and protection papers with the state of Michigan.
This is not the first time Biniecki has taken part in finding an undiscovered shipwreck, but the fifth. He took part in the discovery of the ill-fated Regina in 1986 and was the driving force behind the establishment of the Sanilac Shores Great Lakes States Underwater Preserve after that wreck was pillaged by salvagers. The preserve has eight explored wrecks within its boundaries.
The John Breden was found just outside the preserve's southern boundaries.
"I believe in leaving things just as they are. I want the public to see it, just the way we see it," said Biniecki.
The exploration of the wreck has helped the team piece together exactly what happened to the John Breden when it sunk and during its term of service. They worked with old newspaper clippings, the state historian, maritime history facilities, historic photograph collectors and old shipping records to trace its life. The story of its demise is spelled out plainly on the floor of Lake Huron. "It peeled open like a banana," said Donato.
It was an ignominious end to a vessel that had long outlived her usefulness by the time she sunk, and was abandoned the day before her wreck by a sailor that called the Breden "a floating coffin."
The schooner was a wooden merchant barkentine built by Donaldson & Andrews at Port Dalhousie, Ontario in 1862, they learned. She had one deck, three masts and measured 130 by 25 by 12 feet and 413 tons. she was built for John Breden and others of Kingston, Ontario and was valued at $18,000. By 1875, she had changed owners five times and had lost her headgear in a collision at Elk Island on the lower part of the St. Clair River. The scarring changed her service from a bark to a barge.
As a barge, her main mast and rigging was likely removed to maximize her loading capacity. She was towed by steam barges (a common practice, so she would be less dependent on the wind and able to move through difficult channels) and carried loads of lumber. By the end of 1888, she had been sold eight times.
In the spring of 1889, while owned by A.W. Comstock of Alpena, she was renovated as a three-masted schooner and refitted with full sails. However, that career was short-lived, and large repairs rendered her a barge again.
In November 1898, after being sold 11 times in 36 years, she was seized by a U.S. Marshall for claims by the Ruelle Tug Company in Detroit and was sold at auction for $280. She changed hands twice more to fall back into the ownership from which she was seized, J.M. Jones of Detroit, who reacquired her in 1899.
In July 1899, the John Breden was seized again for unpaid debts while stopping in Port Huron, en route from Toledo to Bay City. Once released from the U.S. Marshall, she left Port Huron in the tow of the Winslow, owned by the Saginaw Bay Towing Association. She was said to be carrying 600 tons of coal, even though she was rated for only 319 tons.
On July 21, about four miles off Lexington, a gale blew up and the John Breden pulled apart, sinking to the bottom, with only her mast marking the spot. Two sailors, who were never identified and presumed transients, and the cook, Jane Conners, died. The captain, known only as Capt. MacDonald, could not account for the overloading of the ship.
Diving from October through December, and resuming their work in April, the divers found the bow torn from the bilge and the gunwales separated from the hull. "It looked like the Winslow pulled the bow out, then the gunwales pulled out and the bilge came to rest upright on the bottom," said Donato.
Using surveyor's tape, underwater archaeologists measured the Breden's keel and confirmed the figures with the shipwright's log and records at the Institute for Great Lakes Research at Bowling Green University in Perrysburg, Ohio and ther Duluth Canal Park Museum.
Key to the exploration is the team of 31 underwater archaeology students who help map and document the site, said Biniecki. "We have people from all over- Ludington, Jackson, you name it. They've done a lot of work." Biniecki is one of two PADI-certified sport diving archaeologists in the state.
But the work has been a financial drain on the Biniecki's and Donato. All the dives, research, correspondence and travel have been paid for out of their pockets. "We would love to get an underwriter, but we don't have one. And we don't have any grants. We just do it because it's important to us," said Donato.
Biniecki refuses to cash in on the salvage of the wrecks he finds. "I have a real problem with that. I feel that they should be left as they were found. And if I can't do that, then I don't say anything. If anything goes up, it should go to a museum, so the public can see it. I don't do this for personal gain, obviously."
So why does he do it? Why spend untold dollars and hours on something that will never pay back? "Once you've seen a wreck that no one's ever seen before, that's it. That's why the archaeology classes are so important. For most of those divers, it's the first time they see an untouched wreck. Maybe the only time." (by Lynn Van Dine)
      Great Lakes Diving Magazine
      June/July 1995

Schooner JOHN BREDEN foundered on July 21, 1899 on lake Huron. Owned by M.S. Jones of Detroit. Value of vessel, $600. Approx value of loss $500.
      Casualty List for 1899 [total loss]
      Marine Review
      December 21, 1899
Schooner JOHN BREDEN. U. S. No. 13933. Of 319 tons gross; 303 tons net. Built Port Dalhousie, Ont., 1862. Home port, Detroit, Mich. 130.3 x 25.2 x 11.9
      Merchant Vessel List, U. S., 1898

Canadian Barkentine JOHN BREDEN, of 318 tons. Built Port Dalhousie, Ont. 1862 by Donaldson & Andrews. Became American JOHN BREDEN with U. s. No. 13933, became a barge from1868 - 1878 later a schooner from 1889 to 1899.
      Herman Runge Notes

Media Type:
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Reason: sunk
Lives: 3
Hull damage: $600
Cargo: $500
Remarks: Total loss
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Geographic Coverage:
  • Michigan, United States
    Latitude: 43.26808 Longitude: -82.53076
William R. McNeil
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John Breden (Schooner), U13933, sunk, 21 Jul 1899