Civil War-era ships found in Marine Sanctuary
ALPENA — Decades after they gave up the adventure of searching for shipwrecks, two underwater explorers with Alpena roots made a thrilling find in the waters of the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary.
Longtime friends Mark Gammage and Joe Van Wagnen, who first got their feet wet hunting for sunken ships near Alpena, this summer searched for and found a Civil War-era shipwreck not seen in nearly 160 years.
Along the way, they discovered another wreck once thought destroyed and rekindled a love of searching the deep waters for historical treasures that, they hope, will lead to more adventures — and more finds — in years to come.
Hunting in the waters around Mackinaw City, Whitefish Point on Lake Superior, and the Thumb in the 1970s and 1980s, the pair found three shipwrecks in the 1980s before taking a break from underwater searches to focus on family and career.
Three years ago, feeling something was missing, they purchased some fancy equipment and dove into online research about other lost ships they might locate. They set their sights on finding the elusive Augustus Handy — a grain-hauling schooner that went down in rough weather off the coast of Northeast Michigan only weeks after the Civil War began.
In the style of many modern underwater searchers, they divided the area over Spectacle Reef — about 13 miles east of Cheboygan and where the Handy was last known to be seen — into quadrants, and “we essentially mowed the lawn,” said Van Wagnen.
Check out this video of the underwater explorers giving a tour of their finds. Viewing on mobile? Turn your device horizontally for the best viewing experience. Story continues below video.
They drove their search ship in lines as sonar sent down from the boat beamed up precise images of objects as small as a rock from the lake’s bottom.
“When you pass a ship, it sticks out like a sore thumb,” Van Wagnen said.
On June 16, the explorers thought they’d hit their mark.
A ship, in the approximate area where the Handy disappeared, loomed into view. Sending down a remotely operated vehicle to get a better look, they discovered the ship they’d found didn’t match the description of the Handy.
Their find had been stripped of anything of value by professional wreckers, it was clear, with only a small amount of iron ore left in its cargo hold.
The ship was, they eventually discovered, the Nightingale, a schooner that sank in 1869. For years, historians believed the ship had been cut into pieces and hauled into deeper waters to make room for a lighthouse that was to be built on the reef where it sank.
History was corrected when Gammage and Van Wagnen found the vessel intact. In a rare discovery, they also showed through their underwater imagery where the boat was pushed down a slope along the lake’s floor to make way for the lighthouse.
The search for the Handy continued in nearby waters, and, on Aug. 7, Gammage and Van Wagnen saw the long-hidden vessel lurking in the depths.
“You wouldn’t believe how exciting that is,” Van Wagnen said. “There’s nothing like it. And to actually find two in one summer is very special. It’s hard enough to find one wreck, let alone two.”
Van Wagnen was the first to see the vessel that nobody had laid eyes on since May 7, 1861. The ROV sent imagery of a beautiful ship, almost fully intact, its deck and railing classy for its time, Gammage said.
The rudder is turned hard to port, watery images reveal. The crew onboard on that stormy 1861 day evidently saw the reef just before they hit and turned hard to try to avoid the collision, Gammage surmised.
According to survivors, the ship took on water fast, and the crew had to flee to a lifeboat, leaving clothes and other belongings behind.
Through a back-breaking 15–mile row to Cheboygan in rough weather and 40-degree waters, the crew all survived. Behind them, their ship sank, taking with it its load of corn from the ripe fields of the Midwest meant to feed the hungry masses on the east coast as a war was getting underway.
Some of that corn is still in the ship’s hold, deep in the waters off Northeast Michigan.
The ship, abandoned in haste, looks as though someone had simply closed the door in 1861 and walked away, said Gammage. A cookstove waits to serve its next meal, and a rope lies coiled on the deck.
“It’s all soft and funky,” said Van Wagnen, “but it’s amazing, the stuff that’s still there. It’s like a time capsule. And we were the first ones to glimpse it in 159 years.”
The find is of historical significance because the ship is still in such pristine condition, offering up unknown details about shipbuilding in the late 1800s.
Plus, the explorers said, a successful underwater hunt is just plain exciting.
In the past, they haven’t made a big fuss about their finds, not revealing the locations or putting out press releases.
This time, they decided to make sure people know about the two ships that have been hidden from human eyes for so long.
The details of the ships’ locations aren’t public yet, but officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are planning to document the finds to be marked for divers eager to explore history.
Discoveries are exciting, Van Wagnen said. But, the pair decided this go-round, they’re even more fun when they’re shared.
In the 1970s, the two spent about a year diving near Alpena, where they first got a taste for shipwreck hunting. The marine sanctuary didn’t exist yet, nor did the sonar tools and mapping services that allow divers to find wrecks far from shore, where no landmarks can be seen.
“Our heart’s kind of in Alpena,” said Gammage. “It’s where we got our start.”
They’re not done exploring, the men said. They’ve got several projects up their sleeves — with details top-secret, at least for now — and hope to have more exciting news to share next summer.
Van Wagnen is looking forward to more summer days on a boat, watching the world below slide by as he hunts for history.
“You’re up on the boat watching a 42-inch TV, driving this mini-sub around and taking video,” Van Wagnen said. “It’s a blast.”
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to reflect that the Augustus Handy sank on May 7, 1861. The date was incorrect in an earlier version of this story.