As the crew muscled yet another railroad car off the stern of the ship and into the murky depths of Lake Michigan, Capt. Peter Kilty of the Pere Marquette 18 may have breathed a sigh of relief.
It had been a tumultuous few hours out in the middle of the lake early on the morning of Sept. 9, 1910 — 110 years ago this week. The ship, carrying about 60 passengers and crew, and close to 30 rail cars from Ludington, Michigan, to Milwaukee, started taking on water faster than its pumps could handle, and Kilty quickly issued orders.
Jettison the rail cars to lighten the load. Change course to reach shore more quickly. Broadcast distress calls via wireless telegraph: “Carferry 18 is sinking midlake — help — help.”
As recounted in the book “Steel on the Bottom” by maritime historian Frederick Stonehouse, other vessels rushed alongside to help, standing by as Kilty and his crew kept on course for the Wisconsin shore. The beleaguered ship was running low in the water, and stress levels undoubtedly still were running high. Yet there was hope that maybe — just maybe — they’d pull through.
Then — to the disbelief of eyewitnesses — the Pere Marquette 18’s stern suddenly sank beneath the waves and the bow raised toward the sky. And just like that — she was gone, leaving at least 29 people dead and others struggling to escape the swirling wreckage.
Exactly what caused the ship to founder became a much-debated mystery. And the Pere Marquette 18’s final resting place was lost to time. It was among the most notable Lake Michigan wrecks to have eluded searchers — until this summer.
Armed with century-old accounts of the sinking along with a well-honed feel for interpreting those voices from the past — and making the most of modern-day technology — Minnesota shipwreck hunters Jerry Eliason and Ken Merryman located the Pere Marquette 18. It sits in nearly 500 feet of water far offshore from Sheboygan, Wis., and Port Washington, Wis., coated in zebra mussels and — as Eliason put it — “javelined” stern-first into the lake bottom at a sharp angle, the tip of the bow rising nearly 100 feet off the lake bed.
“It’s pretty dramatic,” Merryman said. “It’s speared in — we’re both guessing around 30 to 40 degrees, that it sits into the bottom. ... And a fair amount of it is buried in the mud.”
Stonehouse, the author and historian, described it as “an incredible find.”
“I find it amazing that Lake Michigan divers have been looking for her forever. And it took the boys from Minnesota to go down and literally in a matter of a couple of days ... discover that wreck,” he said.
The Pere Marquette 18 is just the latest shipwreck discovery for Eliason and Merryman, part of a small community of dedicated searchers who have made numerous significant finds in the Great Lakes, going back decades.
The loss of the Pere Marquette 18 was witnessed by dozens of people — including more than 30 survivors — but has long remained shrouded in mystery.
An account in the “Marine Review” two months after the wreck put it this way: “The case is unique, in the history of lake navigation at least, in that while other ships have passed out mysteriously they left no soul to give any intimation of what befell. Here, 32 people are rescued and yet not one who knows why the Pere Marquette 18 foundered.”
Complicating matters was that captain Kilty and all of his officers — the people who could best answer those questions — died in the wreck.
Water could have seeped in through unsecured portholes or hatches, though the ship had encountered far greater seas during its career. Instead, much of the attention turned to the Pere Marquette 18’s recent work as an excursion vessel out of Chicago.
For several summers — including the summer of 1910 — the 338-foot ship carried thousands of people on short trips out of Chicago. Instead of holding boxcars, the car deck was converted to host dancing and music. It was a lucrative deal for the owners, but the extra sailings during a traditionally slower time of year deprived the Pere Marquette 18 of opportunities for routine maintenance.
There were also rumors the charter captain and crew treated the ship roughly, Stonehouse said — stories that “the vessel was being damaged by hard landings, hitting pilings — [and] it wasn’t being addressed because of the need to do the excursions.”
The ill-fated voyage was the Pere Marquette 18’s first on its regular route after returning from Chicago.
It had passed an inspection but after the sinking, some crew members reported that the ship’s pumps had been running constantly before leaving port. And Kilty himself reportedly expressed serious concerns about the ship’s condition — though he did end up guiding the ship out into the night.
Later decisions by Kilty also drew criticism after the wreck — namely, why he didn’t order the ship evacuated well ahead of its sudden plunge into the depths. It had labored for hours as the crew struggled to roll the rail cars off the stern and take other steps to stay afloat.
An inspectors’ report published in the “Marine Review” targeted Kilty, saying “we think that his efforts were directed more towards saving the ship, than to the saving of the lives aboard his boat.” Kilty, who had built a stellar reputation as a Great Lakes mariner, of course could not answer that criticism — criticism that may have been a cover for more scrutiny of the ship’s owners.
“The statement damns Kilty for not abandoning her sooner,” Stonehouse wrote in his book, “but does not imply why he had to leave her at all.”
Finding the wreck
The unanswered questions, the eyewitness accounts and the dramatic story combined to make the Pere Marquette 18 a wreck long-sought by many searchers. For Eliason, of Cloquet, Minnesota, and Merryman, who’s from Fridley, it drew renewed attention because Merryman had his boat, the Heyboy, in the general vicinity as he traveled around the Great Lakes.
Using rough location info from some of the many eyewitness and survivor accounts, Merryman had done some initial searching in 2019 without success — but those contemporary reports can often be unreliable.
Going into the 2020 season, Eliason got some research help that unearthed a more authoritative report in federal archives — an account from rescuers with the United States Life-Saving Service, a forerunner of the Coast Guard; it gave a different location for the sinking.
The two men analyzed all the available information, and debated, and debated some more.
Each made their best guess as to the wreck location, and then they settled on a starting point for their search on July 23.
It was a remarkably good choice: They located a likely target that first day, and confirmed it was the Pere Marquette 18 the next. (And Merryman noted, in their friendly rivalry, that it ended up being closer to his prediction.)
“It’s probably the closest we’ve ever gotten to finding a ship based on research” alone, and not more time spent covering a search grid, Merryman said. “Stories get mixed up and so you still have to sort the wheat from the chaff. But after all is said and done, I think this — of any of the wrecks we’ve found — we got closer to with research.”
Technical difficulties and unfavorable weather delayed efforts to get better photos and video of the wreck — “It took us a day to find it, but three weeks to get video, which is kind of backwards from what normally happens,” Merryman said.
They were joined at times by fellow Minnesotan Tom Crossmon, and Kraig Smith and Brendon Baillod from Wisconsin, but by the time the stars finally aligned for one perfect day last month, it was back to just Eliason and Merryman. They dropped a camera on a cable down to the wreck, making several passes to collect video. At nearly 500 feet deep, it was like dangling that camera off the top of a 35-story building to film something on the ground.
Invasive zebra mussels coat the Pere Marquette 18 — a double-edged sword when it comes to wrecks. While they block features such as nameplates, they also can help make the water somewhat clearer. The stern of the wreck is embedded into the lake bottom at an unusually high angle, with “a lot of wreckage laying around; there’s bathtubs, there’s two lifeboats laying on the bottom,” Eliason said. The pilothouse structure broke loose when it sank and came to rest farther back, toward the stern; the roofs of the cabins were torn off by escaping air as the ship sank.
The location of the wreck and the unique design of a railroad car ferry leave no doubt it’s the Pere Marquette 18, both men said.
The depth of the wreck is at the limits of the most advanced divers on the Great Lakes, Merryman and Eliason said; it’s possible someone could reach the bow with great effort.
Documentation of the wreck will go to the Wisconsin Historical Society, for possible inclusion of the site on the National Register of Historic Places.
Eliason noted it could be interesting to backtrack along the ship’s route, looking for the rail cars on the lake bottom. But at this point they don’t plan to return to the site.
With the stern so deeply embedded in the mud, it’s unclear whether the discovery of the wreck will definitively answer any questions about the sinking. But Stonehouse said each new shipwreck find is important.
“It really just continues the march of history on the lakes,” he said. “It continues to open up our eyes to what we have as a cultural resource. It continues to answer and explain many of the mysteries that we’ve had on the books for many years — and certainly the Pere Marquette 18 is part of that.”
A voice from the past
Among the crew of the Pere Marquette 18 on its final voyage was Stephen Sczepanek, the wireless operator who tapped out desperate calls for help. Using that still-new technology and the spare language of Morse code, Sczepanek pleaded with the Pere Marquette 18’s sister ship the Pere Marquette 17 in the predawn hours, 110 years ago:
“17-17-17-18 — come help, come help,” he sent out in one message, according to transcripts of the distress calls in Stonehouse’s book “Steel on the Bottom.”
Sczepanek’s efforts helped bring other ships to the scene — rescuers who saved more than 30 passengers and crew. But Sczepanek was not among them; he was one of at least 29 people who perished — the first wireless operator to die in a Great Lakes wreck. His name later was added to a monument in New York City; the wireless operator who died on the Titanic is among the others listed on that memorial.
With the wreck of the Pere Marquette 18, said Stonehouse, “you’re able not only to use it as a time capsule, but to open it up and read the messages that were coming from this doomed vessel and understand a little bit about what was happening to them and a little bit about the human tragedy. ... A shipwreck is not really about the iron and the steel and the coal. A shipwreck is really about the people that were on it and what stories they had.”