The wreck of the Thomas Wilson

At 10:40 on a clear, calm Saturday morning almost exactly 110 years ago, the inbound freighter George G. Hadley collided with the outbound whaleback steamer Thomas Wilson just off the Duluth Ship Canal in what the News Tribune reported was “one of the most spectacular and disastrous marine catastrophes” of the time.

The Wilson sank in minutes on June 7, 1902, with the loss of nine of its 21 crew. It still lies beneath the waves of Lake Superior within site of Canal Park and the Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center, where an exhibit on the wreck will be formally opened at 1 p.m. Monday.

The exhibit has been open for a while now. Center director Thom Holden said the it features some items that have been in the center’s collection for several decades, and some new acquisitions made in recent years from divers who recovered them from the wreck.

Here’s an account of the collision written by the News Tribune’s Chuck Frederick in May 1996, when the wreck site was named one of Minnesota’s most endangered historic sites because of damage caused by ships’ anchors:

On a glorious June day in 1902, the whaleback steamer Thomas Wilson sailed quietly across glass-still water through the Duluth entry and into Lake Superior.

Less than a mile out, the wooden freighter George Hadley was changing course. The captain had decided not to enter the harbor in Duluth. He steamed the ship instead toward the Superior entry — and into the path of the Wilson.

Neither boat was able to yield. The nose of the 287-foot Hadley slammed into the broadside of the Wilson. She went down fast. Water poured into cargo holds that had been left unsecured. The captain figured he could save time by bolting down the hatch covers during the trip across the calm lake.

Within minutes, the Wilson’s mast was all that was left poking through the still water about a half-mile from the Duluth entry. The Hadley was able to beach itself along Minnesota Point where it could later be salvaged and repaired.

Nine crew members went down with the Wilson, a ship that is now part of Northland shipping lore. She was built in 1892 in Superior at the American Steel Barge Co., an ancestor to today’s Fraser Shipyards. The company was owned by Alexander McDougall, who designed the whaleback steamers, including the SS Meteor, a sister ship to the Wilson that now is open for tours on Superior’s Barker’s Island. The Wilson’s anchors are displayed on the lawn in front of the Marine Museum in Duluth’s Canal Park.

The wreck is popular among divers, who wait for northeasterly winds to push in clear water. But it’s not the ship it used to be, they say. “It has been utterly destroyed” by the anchors dropped by Great Lakes vessels, said Elmer Engman, a Proctor diver who owns Inner Space Scuba Equipment along Miller Trunk Highway.

“It looks like a ship that’s been in a war,” said Scott Anfinson of the State Historic Preservation Office in St. Paul. “It looks like someone’s been dropping bombs on it. Instead of colliding with one ship, it looks like it was hit by five or six boats all at once.”

The Wilson’s deck has been destroyed by the anchors, but the forward cabins and bow structure are still intact.

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Here are links to the front page and a jump page of the News Tribune from June 8, 1902, the day after the wreck. You can read the full account of the sinking of the Wilson, and also look at what else was making news 110 years ago:

Thomas Wilson wreck front page

Thomas Wilson wreck jump page

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June 7 is the anniversary of another well-known Lake Superior wreck – the America, which sank at Isle Royale on June 7, 1928. The history website Zenith City Online has a post about the America here.

The bow of the America can still be seen just beneath the surface – close enough to touch with an oar from a boat when I visited there in the 1990s.

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