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Documentary Filmmakers Accidentally Discover Long Lost Steamship in Great Lakes

An astonishing find at the bottom of the Great Lakes is getting attention from around the world.

Filmmakers working on a documentary about invasive mussels in the Great Lakes have stumbled upon what they believe is a 128-year old steamship at the bottom of Lake Huron.

North American boaters are likely familiar with the five basins that comprise the Great Lakes, but those outside the continent might be unaware that the largest freshwater lakes on Earth can be quite similar to the Atlantic or Pacific.

Because of their size and depth, the Great Lakes -- which includes Superior, Erie, Huron, Michigan, and Ontario -- hold some of the most famous shipwrecks in maritime history.

Now their history is garnering more attention thanks to the discovery of a steamship missing since 1895.

The 128-year old wooden vessel was discovered by filmmakers Yvonne Drebert and Zach Melnick in June. The pair received a tip from local scientists conducting a fish study off the coast of the Bruce Peninsula which led them to the ship's resting place. The peninsula is a well-known landmark in the Great Lakes -- the outcropping marks the divide between the larger Lake Huron to the south and the smaller Georgian Bay to the north.

The scientists conducting the fish study had noted a sonar anomaly consistent with a shipwreck, which they forwarded to Drebart and Melnick for further study.

The filmmakers, a husband and wife team who live on the Bruce Peninsula and run Inspired Planet Productions, were in the midst of a documentary about the invasive quagga mussels currently wreaking havoc on the Great Lakes. Originally from the Black Sea region in Eurasia, quagga mussels can cover lake bottoms in massive quantities while simultaneously filtering plankton out of the water. The loss of plankton is devastating to fish populations and government agencies in both Canada and the United States have been fighting since the 1980s to limit their ecological impact.

To find the vessel, and the horde of mussels attached to it, Drebert and Melnick used an ROV to explore the lake bottom using the coordinates provided by the scientists.

“When we set out on this project we thought what’s the best possible tool for us to kind of play James Cameron and get to the bottom of the lakes and show people what’s happening there? This was the best tool,” Melnick told the Owen Sound TImes.

“The robot gets to the bottom of the lake and surprise, surprise there are mussels. So I’m thinking, oh great, let’s go back, this is going to be nothing,” Drebert added.

But, hovering at depth of nearly 280 feet in the deceptively clear waters, Drebert saw a silhouette in the distance.

“It’s like, OK, that could be a pile of rocks or something. Then it very slowly came into view and became obvious it was a shipwreck in incredible condition. We all started freaking out, really," Melnick told the Owen Sound Times.

After circling the vessel's impressive length, Melnick and team then noticed the steam stack rising from the stern deck.

A rare feature among Great Lakes shipwrecks, the steam stack would mark the beginning of a mission to uncover the vessel's name and origin.

“We started putting all the pieces together and started getting even more and more excited about it and we started thinking what is this?” Melnick recalled.

The task wouldn't be easy, first and foremost because of the quagga mussels coating the hull. Since nearly all shipwrecks fall under preservation and anti-salvaging laws in Canada, the vessel couldn't be touched.

That meant Melnick and Drebert would have to explore other avenues to uncover the ship's origin.

“It’s a bit of a double-edged sword for us because it’s kind of great to be able to see with the clarity the mussels have created but they’re also having these huge ecosystem impacts,” Drebert told the Owen Sound Times. “It’s really flipped the whole ecosystem on its head.”

The qauggas, which are a cousin of the equally problematic zebra mussel, coat surfaces by the thousands, making it impossible (or potentially illegal) to clear away a section of the hull to locate a name or ID number.

With the circumstances making an identification difficult, the filmmakers approached maritime historian Patrick Folkes and marine archaeologist Scarlett Janusas for help.

In an article with Canadian Geographic, Folkes, the author of "Shipwrecks of the Saugeen," estimates about 100 ships sunk in the region between 1848 and 1930. Approximately 40 to 50 were never found, which means there are many undiscovered shipwrecks littering the floor of Lake Huron.

“Sometimes the only clue [that a ship had been lost] was when bodies or wreckage washed ashore,” Folkes told Canadian Geographic.

In order to continue searching around the vessel, the team secured an archaeological license from the province of Ontario allowing them to return to the shipwreck with an ROV to look for more clues.

After taking measurements to confirm the ship's length, wide, and signature features, their research narrowed it down to three names -- the Eclipse, last seen in 1883; the Africa, sunk in 1895; and the Saturn, lost in 1901.

The 'Africa' when she was a passenger ship / Photo- Historical Collections of the Great Lakes, Bowling Green State University

In the silt surrounding the wreckage were pieces of coal -- a telltale sign that she was a cargo ship. That detail, paired her surprising length and steam stack, made for only one logical candidate -- the Africa.

And therein lies the story of a mysterious vessel whose unique appearance had to be unwound through the webs of time.

Most of the original photos and construction details for the Africa didn't match the ship found at the bottom of Lake Huron. In fact, many of the records showed her as a passenger ship full of guest cabins, not a cargo ship used for hauling coal.

According to maritime records, the Africa was built in Kingston, Ontario in 1873 for a cost of $37,000 in gold -- a peculiar detail in its own right -- and spent her first 12 years shuttling passengers between Montreal, Chicago, Toledo, and Owen Sound. She was even known to race other passenger ships on the Great Lakes.

In1886, disaster struck when she inexplicably caught fire, likely from an explosion onboard. She was moored in Owen Sound at the time and burned down to the waterline.

In an extremely rare move, rather than scrapping the vessel as a burnt-out heap the Africa was rebuilt as a steam barge. Another 14 feet was added to her length and her interior cabins were removed to create more cargo space.

She would spend the next nine years criss-crossing Lake Huron hauling lumber and coal.

The 'Africa' refitted as a cargo barge / Photo- Historical Collections of the Great Lakes, Bowling Green State University

Then, on October 5th, 1895, she left port in Ashtabula, Ohio headed for Owen Sound with the schooner Severn in tow. Both ships were loaded with coal.

On board the Africa were 10 crew and her captain Hans Larsen.

On October 7th, both ships encountered a nasty storm off the Bruce Peninsula. The winds were so strong they shredded the sails on the Severn. As it became apparent both vessels were in distress, Larsen called for the Africa to release the Severn from her tow line.

Now adrift in the storm and with dusk setting in, the crew of the Severn watched the Africa disappear on the horizon.

Miraculously, help arrived to the Severn early the next morning. Her crew were cold, wet, and rattled, but alive. They'd hit a reef while adrift, which damaged the boat but didn't sink it, and the sailors had started a fire inside the hold using coal from their cargo to keep hypothermia at bay.

The Africa was never seen again.

“Capt. Larsen either thought that we were sinking, or his vessel was foundering,” the Severn’s captain, James Silversides, told a local newspaper days after the storm, according to Canadian Geographic. “I think it was the latter, because he is a grand fellow, and would never have deserted us if he thought we were in a bad way.”

A search for the Africa was immediately launched, and shortly thereafter the crew of the Severn found the Africa’s lifeboat -- but it was empty.

“No one had ever been in her,” Silversides told the local newspaper. “I tell you that I have passed through some bad weather during my thirty-five years’ sailing, but that experience upon Lake Huron is as bad as any. Captain Larsen was a splendid fellow to sail with, and he did all he could in this case to prevent what happened.”

In the days that followed, two bodies were discovered by fisherman. Over the following months, debris from the Africa, including ominous items like life preservers and a trunk containing personal items, washed ashore. But nothing definitive was ever found that explained where, or how, the Africa went down.

The following summer, in 1896, three more bodies washed ashore, including that of Captain Larsen.

For the next 128 years, no other debris from the Africa turned up, and no new theories about her disappearance gained any momentum. Her loss was chocked up as another victim of the deceptively dangerous Great Lakes.

But thanks to Melnick and Drebert, the location of the Africa is now known, which means the process of uncovering the gaps in her story can begin. In a strange twist of fate, Larsen Cove, where the filmmakers reside on the Bruce Peninsula, is named after captain Larsen.

Now the duo, alongside the historian Folkes and the archeologist Janusas, will seek to answer the remaining questions about the Africa. How did she sink? What happened to her crew?

Human remains are likely still onboard, perhaps in the engine room where they are beyond view, says Folkes, according to Canadian Geographic. To keep salvagers, divers, and other gawkers from disturbing what is likely a historic burial site, Melnick and Drebert are keeping the exact location a secret.

“It’s a human tragedy; those lives were lost,” Folkes told Canadian Geographic. “I always think of those poor sailors. They had pretty tough lives and ended up getting drowned in Lake Huron.”

“We’ve lived by the Great Lakes, a stone’s throw away our whole lives, and there is so much about them we haven’t seen and don’t know. The potential for exploration with this craft just opens up a whole new universe for us,” Drebert told the Owen Sound Times.

The story of the Africa will feature in the pair's upcoming documentary All Too Clear -- with the story between her discovery and the invasive mussels offering a clear glimpse into the depths of the Great Lakes.

In the meantime you can visit or check out the ROV footage of the discovery in the video below:

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