Sightseeing in Northern Michigan: The Henry B. Smith Shipwreck

Looking into your family history can be fascinating and surprising.

One woman discovered she was related to a notorious Great Lakes captain.

As chief photojournalist Corey Adkins shows us in tonight’s Sightseeing in Northern Michigan, that discovery started her on a search for answers.

“The story of her loss should be told again and again, because it is the classic story of a good ship and crew against a terrific storm and the fates were against them.”

It was a beautiful August morning when members of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society and a descendant of Captain Jimmy Owen of the Henry B. Smith ventured into Lake Superior to the site where 26 men died.

“The Henry B. Smith was one of the last ships to go down in the storm of 1913,” says Fred Stonehouse, maritime historian.

This story starts when Kathy Pletsch from Godrich, Ontario was working on her family’s genealogy.

“And my sister had some notes my mother had given her at one time saying that she had a grand uncle that had drowned,” explains Kathy. “I saw James Owen and when I looked in the family bible and saw his death date it said November 9th, 1913.”

She found that Captain Owen was her great grand uncle who died in the Great Storm of 1913… The result of a bad decision. 

“We know when the Henry B. Smith left port it was in a lull of the storm. About 3-4 miles out of the city of Marquette the storm struck with renewed furry and that ship took the brunt of it, and Capt. Owen had a choice and that was either to return to Marquette. If he turned back into the waves like that, the chances of capsizing were certainly, very significant and being rolled by the seas or his other choice was to turn northwest and run into the bulk of the storm heading for the shelter of the Keweenaw Peninsula and that’s what he elected to do,” says Fred.

The Smith, caught in the equivalent of a fresh water hurricane, had nowhere to go.

“Very slowly that storm took the ship apart. It just pounded it to death and sometime during that night she was experiencing waves in excess of 32 feet in height and winds in excess of at least 75 mph,” says Fred.

The Henry B. Smith was discovered two years ago by Jerry Eliason and Ken Merryman of the Shipwreck Hunters.

On this day, Kathy floats over where her great grand uncle died along with his crew.

“All those men died there and I think everyone sensed that, that there were bodies down there whether, what state they’re in there are bodies there, and they should be remembered,” says Kathy.

But just as the ROV got to the Smith a resistor blew. 

“We went out on the David Boyd hoping to see the wreck but the ROV broke. We did see a glimpse of it and we did see a side scan sonar of it so we knew we were right over it and that’s thrilling. I wish that I had seen it of course but it was an absolutely splendid day,” says Kathy.

Because in the end it’s all about the memory of the people who were aboard the Smith…their stories.

“These were real people with real families and stories and if we can put some of that together and it’s not just the shipwreck, it’s the men on the shipwreck, that’s the real story,” explains Kathy.

Categories: Northern Michigan In Focus