Hunting for shipwrecks in Presque Isle’s Misery Bay

After the Battle of Lake Erie in the War of 1812, sailors died and ships were scuttled in Misery Bay, a small inlet at Presque Isle, Pennsyvania.

Now scientists and divers are scouring the Lake Erie bay for shipwrecks.

The modern-day treasure hunt began in 2013, when a lifeguard spotted a debris field with two anchors crossed, recently unveiled by shifting sands. 

Last month, researchers from Pennslvania Sea Grant, the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and Indiana University of Pennsylvania used ground-penetrating radar, magnetometers and radiometers to search beneath 8 inches of ice. 

They got a hit, not just under the water, but under the sediment. Scuba divers swam under the ice to physically touch the find.

“We’re always looking for the mysteries,” said Dave Boughton of Pennsylvania Sea Grant.

He won’t hint on what they think they found. But their work has inspired a shipwreck exhibit at the Tom Ridge Environmental Center at Presque Isle State Park that runs through April 13. About 10,000 people have visited the exhibit since it opened in November; about 4 million people visit the 13-mile long spit of sand each year.

No one knows exactly how many shipwrecks are in Lake Erie, the shallowest and most treacherous of the Great Lakes.

The number is somewhere between 500 and 3,000, Boughton said. But records are sketchy, especially because ships were often salvaged. 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.

More on scuba diving for shipwrecks in Lake Erie.

Misery Bay may have more than most areas. It was the staging ground to build six of the nine ships used in the Battle of Lake Erie. After the battle, sick sailors were quarantined on the ships all winter, as ice trapped the ships. Hence the name.

Some ships were purposely scuttled to preserve them. That’s what happened to Oliver Hazard Perry’s brig Niagara, rebuilt as a Tall Ship docked in Erie and visits ports throughout the lake every summer.

As for that ship the lifeguard found in 2013? Researchers think it’s a merchant ship that got caught in a storm. It would likely have run aground and sunk, and when winter came, the ice would have sheared off the mast. Eventually sand covered up the ship.

Before officials could decide what to do this time around, another storm came and buried it in 7 to 8 feet of sand.

The ship is still there, within the boundaries of the park.

And the stories still matter. That’s why it’s illegal to remove anything from a shipwreck. Even the research teams leave everything in place, to preserve the wreck’s provenance.

“They give folks a sense of maritime history,” said Brian Gula, of Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.  “How does a place come to be? We all have our stories.”

If you go…

Where: Tom Ridge Environmental Center, Presque Isle State Park, 301 Peninsula Drive, Erie, Pennsylvania

When: Through April 13. Open every day, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.

How much: Free!

 

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