Diving Deep into North Shore History

Author, artist and historian Stephen Daniel '95 M.B.A. made 230 dives into Lake Superior's frigid waters to research his comprehensive guide to North Shore shipwrecks

A Minnesota sight you never forget snaps into view along Interstate 35. Just as the freeway crests Thompson Hill above Duluth, a huge sweep of Lake Superior suddenly fills your windshield, and if the lake’s in a sunny mood, you can see for miles up the shore.

It’s a sight that triggers a sense of adventure and thoughts of the North Shore’s most popular stops: Duluth’s lift bridge, the Edna G. tugboat in Two Harbors, Gooseberry River falls, Split Rock Lighthouse, a string of state parks, Grand Marais harbor, and finally Pigeon River falls and the Canadian border.

But few … very few … have memories of the North Shore quite like University of St. Thomas alumnus Stephen Daniel. He’s not only seen what the popular coastline looks like from land, he’s seen a great deal of it from beneath the chilly lake’s surface.

In fact, he wrote the book on it. Two of them, even. His first, the 2001 S.S. America: A Diver’s Vision of the Past, was followed by a far more ambitious undertaking, Shipwrecks Along Lake Superior’s North Shore: A Diver’s Guide, published in 2008 by the Minnesota Historical Society.

“When I reach the top of the hill above Duluth I always think what a beautiful sight that is, and how excited I am to launch the boat, get out there and dive in,” Daniel said. “I have come to love Lake Superior and its clean fresh water. It is so quiet and peaceful under the surface. You are focused and in another world; it’s like flying like a bird, only underwater. It is just a really neat experience.”

It is an experience Daniel has had 230 times along the North Shore, with many of those dives made during the seven years he spent researching and writing his book. He is one of a very few who have visited all 25 of the shipwrecks he details in his book. “There still are another 10 or more known wrecks along the shore that have not yet been located,” he said.

While 35 might seem like a lot, there are far more shipwrecks to explore on the lower four Great Lakes, Daniel explains, because larger vessels could not reach Lake Superior until the Soo Locks opened at Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., in 1855. Of the estimated 10,000 shipwrecks in the Great Lakes region, only about 350 of them are resting at the bottom of Lake Superior.

His book offers something of an underwater tour of the North Shore from Duluth to Thunder Bay, Ontario. In addition to the shipwrecks, he describes unusual geologic formations like underwater caves, boulder fields and lava flows, as well as manmade formations like sunken breakwaters and dock cribs.

One unusual sight that only scuba divers get to see is near Split Rock Lighthouse. Boulders are scattered across the lake’s solid rock bottom there, and as Daniel writes in his book, “In the lake south of the lighthouse, it looks as if a giant threw them into the lake from shore.” Then on the southwest side of the lighthouse, wave action has caused some of the smaller rocks to roll back and forth and bit by bit, over time, they have worn round holes into the lake bottom. “It’s amazing to swim over them and see what look like balls resting in bowls. I’ve never seen that anywhere else,” Daniel said.

Shipwrecks is filled with maps, photographs and drawings that are both old and new, above water and below. Many were taken or drawn by Daniel, who also includes details about how and when each ship was built, the cargo it hauled, and how and when it sank.

He uses sketches throughout his book to depict the wrecks. Because underwater visibility is limited to about 30 feet, even the best camera cannot capture an entire wreckage in a single image.

How do you sketch something underwater? Daniel uses a regular No. 2 pencil to draw on a sheet of Mylar, which he tapes to a plastic board. Often, he would dive to sketch portions of a ship, and later would carefully reassemble those sketches to create an entire view of the wreck site.

As noted by Thom Holden, director of the Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center in Duluth, Daniel “combines his talents as diver, historian, writer, illustrator and photographer to reveal the submerged remains of Minnesota’s North Shore history.”

The maritime center director could have mentioned the three college degrees that helped Daniel write this book. His undergraduate degree is in art, drawing and design. He later completed a master’s in manufacturing technology, and in 1995 received a St. Thomas M.B.A. in marketing.

Daniel grew up in southeastern Michigan, along the Detroit River that connects Detroit with Lake Erie, and became a Red Cross water safety instructor in college. An Eagle Scout who grew up around boats, he became involved in the Sea Explorers program and led the restoration of a two-masted schooner.

He moved to Minnesota 23 years ago and became a marketing professional at 3M, where he joined the company’s scuba club in 1987. “They said they were planning a dive up on the North Shore,” Daniel recalled. “I didn’t know what that was.”

But he soon became fascinated with the big lake and what lies beneath its surface. “I began asking others where they go diving along the North Shore,” he said. “I bought all the books that were available, but they weren’t very accurate, especially regarding things like the exact locations and depths (of the shipwrecks). I started a collection of underwater drawings and wrote descriptions of the wrecks I visited, and other divers began asking me, ‘Can you send me that?’

“I eventually decided to put it all together in a single volume. Until now, no book has covered the entire North Shore,” he said. Reviewers have called it the most comprehensive guide of its kind, and “a book everyone can enjoy … there isn’t another like it.”

What surfaces in its pages is Daniel’s attention to history and its message, as he puts it, “to take only pictures, leave only bubbles.”

A dozen years ago he learned about the just-formed Great Lakes Shipwreck Preservation Society. Headquartered in Minnesota, it was established to stabilize, protect and even restore sunken vessels.

You might think that once a ship sinks to the bottom, it’s not good for anything. It’s ruined, so why does it need protecting?

“Some of these wrecks are designated historic sites, and should be preserved just like historic sites on land,” said Daniel, a board member and former president of the preservation group. He also explains that, for divers, it is far more interesting to visit a “3-D” shipwreck, which is fairly intact, than a ship that has completely fallen apart and resting flat on the bottom of the lake.

“It is always exciting to visit a shipwreck, but it is especially fascinating to be able to swim into one, to visit its crew quarters, for example, or look through its engine room,” he said.

As part of its efforts to protect the shipwrecks, the society documents and sponsors their nomination to the National Register of Historic Places. So far, four ships they have nominated, two in Wisconsin and two in Minnesota, have been placed on the national register.

Altogether, 11 of the 25 shipwrecks described in Daniel’s books are on the National Register of Historic Places. As you make your way up the North Shore, they are the USS Essex and Thomas Wilson, near Duluth; the Niagra, Onoko and Benjamin Noble near Knife River; the Samuel P. Ely and Robert Wallace, at or near Two Harbors; the Madeira, at Split Rock Lighthouse; the Hesper, at Silver Bay; and the Amboy and George Spencer, near Schroeder.

One of the society’s first projects was to reset the deck and install stabilizing rods in the Ely, a sturdy three-masted schooner that sank in Agate Bay (one of Two Harbors’ two harbors) during a late-October gale in 1896. One of the most popular diving sites along the North Shore, the Ely was slowly collapsing. “We continue to work on this project, and so far our work to preserve it for future generations of divers and historians has been a success,” Daniel said.

A bit of good news about the Ely is that its 11 crew members were rescued. “In most cases the sailors made it off the sinking ships,” Daniel said. “Of the 25 ships described in my book, there were deaths in eight of them.”

Daniel said the society advocates great respect for the sites where lives were lost. Until the Edmund Fitzgerald sank in the November 1975 gale, probably the best-known shipwreck was the Benjamin Noble, a heavily loaded 239-foot steel freighter that sank so violently in a spring 1914 storm that its bow plowed a trench in the lake bottom off Knife River. The crew’s remains are believed to still be aboard.

While Daniel usually gives pin-point directions to the shipwrecks, his book remains vague about the location of the Noble. “It’s not a dive that we want to encourage,” he said. “It is a gravesite, and we respect that. It also is an extremely dangerous dive because of its depth of more than 360 feet.”

In addition to the Ely, one of Daniel’s favorite shipwrecks is that of the Madeira, a 436-foot, steel-hulled, threemasted schooner-barge that was launched in Chicago 110 years ago and sank near the mouth of the Split Rock River during a 1905 November gale. While the ship was being crushed against a massive, sheer rock cliff, one brave seaman managed to leap from the deck and onto a rocky outcrop. He tossed a rope back to the ship and was able to rescue all but one of his crewmates.

Want to learn more?

To get a copy of Stephen Daniel's Shipwrecks Along Lake Superior's North Shore or learn more about the Great Lakes Shipwreck Preservation Society, go the society's web site at glsps.org.

There you will find information about the society's annual "Dive into the Past: Twin Cities Shipwrecks-Scuba Show,"9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 27, at the Americinn Hotel and MErmaid Entertainment and Event Center in Mounds View.

You can bring your suit and get a scuba lesson in the hotel pool, and choose from five talks about shipwrecks and diving in the United States.

Twenty ships were damaged or destroyed in that storm. The heavy losses prompted the construction of the Split Rock Lighthouse, which opened five years later on a cliff overlooking the Madeira’s wreckage.

“There is so much to see on the Madeira,” he said. “As you spend more time there, it starts drawing you in, and you discover more and more to find and see.”

The Great Lakes Shipwreck Preservation Society has been involved in preserving and improving access to the Madeira, and also works on another ship that was especially key to North Shore history, the steamship America.

As explained in Daniel’s first book, S.S. America, the ship was launched near Detroit in 1898. It plied Lake Superior and the North Shore from 1902 until 1928, when it struck a reef near Isle Royale and sank despite a last-ditch effort to steer it toward shallow water near shore.

With no road along the North Shore during the America’s early years, the ship was a lifeline for the villages of Beaver Bay, Tofte, Grand Marais and Grand Portage. The sturdy steamer hauled mail, passengers, fish and everything from nails to cookstoves.

The America was captained for its final 18 years by Edward C. “Indian” Smith, who, co-author Holden wrote, “knew his vessel and Lake Superior so well that it was said, ‘He could smell his way along the North Shore.’ Many noted his ability to navigate in fog. He could blow the America’s beautiful steam whistle, listen for the echo and know exactly when to adjust his course. … An intimate knowledge of the North Shore, an excellent pocket watch and a keen ear kept the America out of many scrapes which would have claimed a lesser-skilled master and his vessel.”

There are no “treasure ships” along the North Shore, Daniel said, but for many years, scuba divers would remove bits and pieces of the wrecks to bring home as souvenirs. In addition to educating divers about the value of leaving artifacts at wreck sites for others to enjoy and study, the shipwreck society is promoting an experimental “Put It Back” program as a way for people to return the artifacts to their original sites or to museums.

The effort has the support of the Minnesota State Historic Preservation Office. Help also comes from the federal Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1987, which effectively gives control of submerged cultural resources to the state involved.

It’s impossible to post guards at the shipwrecks, of course. Real protection comes from educating divers about the role they play in preserving history bynot disturbing the ships.

“That is an important goal of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Preservation Society,” Daniel said, “and it was one of the goals of my book. I’ve always enjoyed working on projects that in some way allow you to give back something to the community; our efforts to record and preserve North Shore history fit in well with that.”

Proceeds from the sale of his book are being donated to the shipwreck preservation society. Daniel and his wife, Cheri, live in Woodbury. Their three grown children, Jeff, Corey and Ami, are certified divers; Daniel, meanwhile, has his fingers crossed about his 10-year-old granddaughter, Abby.


About the author:  Jim Winterer ’71 has been  at St. Thomas since 1980. He was a newspaper editor on the North Shore in the 1970s, and as a college student worked as a deckhand and deckwatch aboard the William A. Irvin, a retired ore carrier that now is a floating museum in Duluth.


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