Northern Michigan in Focus: S.R. Kirby Shipwreck

It’s been a mystery for over a century, but now the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society has found the location of a shipwreck that happened 103 years ago off the Keweenaw Peninsula.

Corey Adkins has the story in this week’s Northern Michigan in Focus.

“That shipwreck looks unlike any shipwreck we’ve ever seen in recent years. It looks like an explosion on the bottom of the lake,” said Bruce Lynn with the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society.

A sonar image captured the 294 foot S.R. Kirby.

“It went down on May 8, 1916. It had left Ashland, Wisconsin, the night before in pretty calm weather and, if you read the reports, as they were getting closer to the Keweenaw Peninsula the weather was getting dirtier and nastier and the winds are picking up,” explained Bruce.

The Kirby was also towing the 352 foot steel barge George E. Hartnell.

“And some of the historical accounts indicate that this ship was probably overloaded, and maybe not evenly loaded, so they weren’t in a great position for a big storm,” said Bruce.

Winds were clocked at 76 mph. Accounts then say a big wave came and took the Kirby and 22 men more than 800 feet to the bottom of Lake Superior.

Two men survived. The barge Hartnell somehow broke free and was rescued later, but, believe it or not, there was one more survivor from the Kirby.

“The captain’s dog was reportedly seen to be swimming next to the captain, his name was David Girardin from Cleveland.  The dog was seen swimming next to his master and when the captain lost any strength that he had and slipped beneath the waves, and the dog ended up getting up on a piece of wreckage and was later picked up by the Coast Guard out of Eagle Harbor,” explained Bruce.

The shipwreck society’s director of marine operations, Darryl Ertel, has been studying the wreckage with their R.O.V.  The Kirby was a unique ship for that era.

“This is a composite ship and only a handful of these were built in the late 1800s.  So you got an iron frame as I understand with a wooden hull surrounding it. It was kind of a new technology, or technology they were experimenting with,” explained Bruce.

An important wreck to study, document and understand what just happened to the S.R. Kirby over a century ago.

“I think it’s every bit as important to tell the story of the crew of a ship like that as it would be as more famous shipwrecks like the Edmund Fitzgerald because every one of those crew members that went down with that ship, and the Kirby reportedly went down in about a minute, it took that long to sink. So if you think the crew maybe in the engine room and might have been below decks.  They didn’t have any chance to get off of that ship. Their stories are just as important as any other shipwreck.”

Categories: Northern Michigan In Focus