The Margaret Olwill was built in 1887 and wrecked in Lake Erie, off the shore of Lorain, in 1899. Five people died on the trip from Kelleys Island to Cleveland. (Historical Collection of the Great Lakes, Bowling Green State University)

After 29 years of searching on-and-off, diver Rob Ruetschle found the shipwreck of the Margaret Olwill, a steam barge that sank carrying 900 tons of limestone from Kelleys Island to Cleveland in June 1899, the National Museum of the Great Lakes announced Thursday. The ship went down in a nor’easter, killing the captain, his wife and their 9-year-old son, as well as five others aboard.

Ruetschle, a Cleveland native who lives in California but regularly scuba dives Lake Erie as a member of the Cleveland Underwater Explorers, discovered the Margaret Olwill in July off the coast of Lorain, after searching 60 square miles of the lake, according to the museum.

“When you first find the wreck that you’re looking for, it’s exciting,” said Ruetschle, whose whole family dives. “It’s like climbing Mount Everest for the first time.”

The Toledo museum also announced the discovery of two yet-to-be-identified shipwrecks in Lake Erie by the Cleveland Underwater Explorers, also called CLUE.

  • A sailing vessel partially broken up and buried in the sandy bottom dubbed “Ken’s Tiller Wreck,” found in July 2016
  • A schooner with the bow, Sampson post and windlass exposed, with fishing nets wrapped around the windlass and a small amount of coal on the deck

The Great Lakes hold the secrets of about 8,000 shipwrecks. No one knows how many thousands are hidden in Lake Erie, the shallowest and murkiest of the lakes. Only about 375 of Lake Erie’s wrecks have been found; they are schooners, freighters, steamships, tugs and fishing boats, and thanks to the cold, fresh water, many of them are perfectly preserved.  

A sidescan of the Margaret Olwill shipwreck in Lake Erie by Rob Ruetschle. (National Museum of the Great Lakes)

“Often it can take years from the initial discovery of a potential underwater target, to confirmation that the target in question is  a shipwreck, to identifying a particular shipwreck as a specific named boat that was lost,” the museum says. The task requires sophisticated underwater technology, such as sidescan sonar, but also historical research.

For the past 13 years, the Cleveland Underwater Explorers have collaborated with the National Museum of the Great Lakes to locate and identify shipwrecks in Lake Erie. In 2015, the Explorers discovered and identified the Argo, a tanker barge lost in 1937 that held much of its original toxic cargo. This discovery initiated a $6 million federal cleanup, the largest ever of a shipwreck.

“CLUE is clearly the best group of volunteer researchers, technicians and divers currently searching for shipwrecks on Lake Erie,” Executive Director Christopher Gillcrist said in a press release.

The Margaret Olwill was built in 1887, rebuilt in 1890 as a propeller and in 1893 as a steambarge. Its remnants identified in July by a vertical steeple steam engine in the stern. The wreckage includes a 14-foot stem, a steel windlass and two anchor chains. The port rail is up, and has four of the deck house framing posts.

Four people survived the wreck. Mate John Smith was rescued the next morning by the Sacramento.

“The lake was smooth when the propeller drew away from the island and all went well until about 9 o’clock, when a heavy squall from the northeast struck us,” Smith told the Plain Dealer then. “The boat stood up well before it for a time and until the wheel chains parted.”