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Lake Superior wreck dive: the Thomas Wilson

Thomas Wilson at Sault Ste Marie @ 1901
Thomas Wilson at Sault Ste Marie @ 1901
Institute for Great Lakes Research, Bowling Green State University

Settled at the bottom of Lake Superior, less than a mile from the Duluth Ship Canal, lies the wreck of the Thomas Wilson. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Thomas Wilson is one of the best sample of the earliest whaleback steamships created, making this a popular destination for divers.

Launched in 1982 as a bulk steam freighter, the Thomas Wilson was one of the first of its kind. The Wilson was a whaleback steamship, a new design with blunt ends, a rounded hull and a flat bottom. The ship was 308 feet long, 24 feet deep with seven watertight compartments and hatches on top of the hull for easy loading and unloading of cargo. The Wilson served to haul wheat, iron ore and coal to and from the Twin Ports to various destinations in the east.

On June 7, 1902, the Thomas Wilson was loaded full of Mesabi Iron Ore and headed out of the Duluth Harbor when disaster struck. It was a quiet and warm day, and the crew of the Wilson left the port without closing the hatches, a mistake which would prove fatal.

As the Wilson was slowly leaving the harbor, a wooden steamer, the George G Hadley was making its way into the harbor. As the Hadley approached the harbor, it received a message from the tug Annie L Smith that the coal docks at the Duluth Harbor were full and that it should head to the Superior Harbor instead. Without noticing the approaching Wilson, Captain Fitzgerald of the Hadley ordered an immediate turn to port. The captain of the Wilson saw the Hadley turning and ordered a turn to starboard to avoid crashing into the other ship, however it was too late.

The Hadley ran into the Wilson towards the back of the ship, tearing a hole in the it’s side. The Wilson tipped to the side, as it did the open hatches allowed water to pour in. The boat righted itself for a moment, but within 3 minutes it sank, carrying 9 of the 20 crewmen to their deaths.

The Hadley managed to beach itself at Minnesota Point and was later repaired and put back on the water.

To avoid similar accidents, rules were created at Duluth Harbor after the crash. Ships were no longer allowed to leave the harbor with open hatches; if ships do collide, they were not to pull away from each other; crew members have to point out other vessels before following their Captain’s orders; all ships must have a signal system to warn of danger.

After three failed attempts to salvage the ship, the Thomas Wilson still waits for eager divers seventy feet below the surface of Lake Superior. The wreck sits in one piece, however the upper part of the super structure was removed after the crash to prevent issues for passing ships. The ship shows considerable damage from the crash event and from anchors of other ships that drop there while waiting for entry into the harbor. Despite the damage, the hull is in good shape and offers divers many interesting points for both penetration and non-penetration divers.

The wreck is only accessible by boat, and several local dive companies can put together a trip out to the wreck. The water temperature tends to be a little warmer in late summer or fall, so these are the best times to visit the wreck. Due to the proximity to the canal and the heavy boat traffic, extreme caution should be exercised when visiting the Thomas Wilson.

For wreck enthusiasts, visiting an intact whaleback steamship beneath the waters of Lake Superior is a dive not to be missed.

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