Pennsylvania Sea Grant at work on documenting one of thousands of shipwrecks in the Great Lakes.

The tugboat Admiral set out from Cleveland on Dec. 2, 1942, towing the tanker barge Cleveco, with a million gallons of wartime fuel oil, on Lake Erie. A fierce winter gale sunk both ships off the Ohio coast, killing all of the Admiral’s crew of 14 and Cleveco’s crew of 18, and spilling all of the fuel.

The story will be featured at the second Great Lakes Shipwreck Exhibit at the Tom Ridge Environmental Center in Erie, Pennsylvania, which runs Nov. 18 through April 13, 2018. The free exhibition also includes artifacts from the US Brig Lawrence, the Wolverene, a simulated debris field of the 1840 ship the St. Louis, remotely operated vehicles, and a gallery of underwater videography.

The exhibit focuses on Lake Erie, the most treacherous of the Great Lakes, because of its unpredictable weather, shallow depth and sandbars.

“We need to fully survey, record and understand what we have below our waters to properly tell the story, protect and conserve these maritime treasures, and honor the sailors who lost their lives to the unpredictably treacherous waters of the Great Lakes,” David Boughton, maritime educator for Pennsylvania Sea Grant and exhibit lead, said in a news release.

No one knows exactly how many shipwrecks are hidden beneath the surface of Erie, or any of the Great Lakes.

Marine archaeologists and researchers have identified as many as 132 sunken ships off of Pennsylvania’s 76-mile Lake Erie coastline, according to Pennsylvania Sea Grant. While some scuba divers estimate there are 8,000 shipwrecks in the Great Lakes, Sea Grant says there may be 25,000.

David Boughton of Pennsylvania Sea Grant working in the field. (Pennsylvania Sea Grant)

They are schooners, freighters, steamships, tugs and fishing boats, and thanks to the cold, fresh water, many of them are perfectly preserved.

A couple of tales told in the exhibit, culled from newspaper accounts, historical photos and underwater surveys:

    • The Griffon, the first ship to set sail in the Great Lakes.
    • The sinking of the SS Daniel Morrell, which sunk in Lake Huron in 1966, killing 28 of its 29-man crew. Some jumped into the 34-degree water, while others were killed when the ship split in two, and the two ends collided.
    • The sinking of the Marquette & Bessemer 2, lost somewhere between Conneaut and Port Stanley, Ontario, in 1909. More than 30 people died, though no one knows what went wrong. The remains are often referred to as the “holy grail” of Lake Erie shipwrecks.
    • The mystery of an 1852 submarine sunk in Lake Erie.

Visitors can learn about the underwater process of researching, conserving and surveying these submerged cultural resources, by the volunteers of the Pennsylvania Archaeological and Shipwreck Survey Team (PASST), and get a first-hand look at the “Cutter” and a nine-pound carronade from the US Brig Niagara, on-loan from the Erie Maritime Museum.

Small-group tours, lectures, living history interviews, marine archaeology classes and an “artifact show & tell” session are all scheduled for the exhibit.