Flags flew at half-mast as the freighter Hudson passed through the Duluth ship canal on a mid-September day just over 118 years ago.
The crew of the ship was paying their respects to President William McKinley, who had succumbed to an assassin's bullet the day before.
It was a somber start to the Hudson's passage across Lake Superior — and in retrospect, perhaps an eerie foreshadowing of what was to come.
“Not one on board realized that before many hours they would be vainly flying signals of distress,” the Duluth News Tribune would later report.
The day after leaving the Twin Ports, the Hudson ran into a vicious gale and sank along the storm-lashed shore of Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula; there were no survivors.
In the decades that followed, there were tales that the Hudson still sailed the lake as a “ghost ship.” But for the most part, its story faded with the passage of time. And the ship itself was lost to the depths of Lake Superior — until this summer.
Shipwreck hunters Jerry Eliason of Cloquet, Minn., and Kraig Smith of Rice Lake, Wis., used sonar and then a camera to locate and confirm the discovery of the Hudson, now resting in 825 feet of water.
“It's very intact, speared into the bottom bow-first,” Eliason said. “So the bow is about even with the mud and the stern is probably around 20 feet off the bottom, and the propeller is hanging high up in the air off the bottom.
Eliason and Smith have been part of a number of Lake Superior shipwreck discoveries in recent years, including the 2013 find of the freighter Henry B. Smith that had vanished with all hands a century before.
The 288-foot-long Hudson was a sturdy steel vessel, built in 1888 “and one of the fastest ships on the lakes,” author and longtime University of Minnesota Duluth professor Julius Wolff wrote in his book “Lake Superior Shipwrecks.”
The Duluth News Tribune reported at the time that the Hudson at one point was known as one of the "greyhounds of the lakes.” The captain of the ship, Angus J. McDonald, was "wedded to the Hudson," a recent passenger, Harry Nesbitt, told the News Tribune shortly after the wreck. "He told me on the way up to Duluth that she was the safest boat on the lakes, in his estimation, and would very much regret it if he should have to go in any other boat."
The Hudson carried a load of wheat and flax as it set out from Duluth on Sept. 15, 1901. At some point, as the Hudson passed the Apostle Islands, a Lake Superior gale kicked up. And the next morning, Sept. 16, lighthouse keepers at Eagle River, Mich., saw a “sizable twin-stacked steamer dead in the water, listing badly,” Wolff wrote. “The unidentified steamer suddenly rolled over and sank.”
But the storm had knocked out communication lines on the Keweenaw, and at first only vague reports and confusion emerged.
On Sept. 18 the News Tribune reported that there was "no clue" to the ship's identity and no sign of wreckage. Observers said they believed a second ship sighted in the area may have rescued the crew of the sunken ship.
On Sept. 19, the paper reported that given the lack of wreckage, the report that a ship foundered was "probably a mistake."
But the next day, news reports made clear there was no mistake: A fishing boat found floating wreckage including two masts, one painted black and the other yellow — matching the Hudson. Over the coming days, more wreckage turned up — including the bodies of some of the crew, some wearing life preservers bearing the name “S.S. Hudson.”
Reports at the time indicated there were 25 crew members aboard, though there was some uncertainty about the exact number; all perished when the Hudson sank.
After the wreck, there was speculation that the Hudson’s cargo of grain shifted during the storm, and that many of the crew had gone into the hold to try to address the problem — and were then trapped when the ship capsized. Wolff wrote that the theory was supported by the fact that only a few bodies washed ashore.
The ship also may have had engine trouble at the worst possible time. But as Wolff wrote, “why the Hudson succumbed when many other less substantial ships came through (the storm) remains one of the mysteries of the lake.”
Before searching for the Hudson, Eliason and Smith — guided by input from author and historian Frederick Stonehouse — had pinpointed a 32-square-mile search area offshore from Eagle River. They knew there was a chance that grid held not just the Hudson, but two other wrecks — the Sunbeam that sank in 1863, and the S.R. Kirby that vanished in 1916.
As it turned out, a search team from Michigan’s Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum was also in the area this summer, and found the mangled wreckage of the Kirby.
And Eliason and Smith, after several trips to identify targets using sonar, dropped a camera into the water above a promising target in mid-July and captured images of a previously undiscovered, largely intact wreck. They lucked out when their camera, dangling 800 feet below, captured part of the ship’s name on the hull: “HUD-”
There was no doubt — the Hudson had been found.
"It's absolutely intact as far as the hull itself. Now the cabins on the vessel were wood and most of the cabins that were there lifted off (when the ship sank,” Eliason said. “So all that wreckage that was coming ashore were the cabins. But basically all the steel is there," including the triple expansion steam engines.
But it’s never easy to find and explore a wreck. Eliason and Smith — joined at times by Randy Beebe of Duluth and Bill Reynolds of Hancock, Mich. — had to contend with wind, waves and equipment malfunctions. And there are the many, many hours spent scouring the lake bottom with sonar, hoping to find signs of a possible wreck.
Even getting those photos of the Hudson, when they knew its exact location, was a challenge.
“The IDS building, tallest building in downtown Minneapolis, is 792 feet tall. So what we're trying to do is dangle this camera on this wreck in 825 feet of water — so we have more depth to get to,” Eliason said. “And it's like doing it with a helicopter in a strong wind because of the Keweenaw current; there's there's a persistent current that flows from southwest to northeast along the Keweenaw Peninsula. ... It's not as easy as one would like it to be."
The Hudson and Kirby are likely tied for the second-deepest wrecks yet located in the Great Lakes. Eliason and Smith were also involved in the discovery of the deepest — the Scotiadoc, found in about 850 to 870 feet of water near Thunder Bay, Ontario, in 2013.
If the weather cooperates, Eliason and Smith are hoping to get back out on the lake this fall to gather more images of the Hudson, and perhaps do some more searching for the still-elusive Sunbeam.
A hoped-for return trip on Sept. 16 — the anniversary of the wreck — didn’t work out. According to legend, recounted by the Zenith City history website, a spectral Hudson and its ghostly crew still sail the waters of Lake Superior offshore from the Keweenaw on that day.
"That's why we wanted to be there on the 16th,” Eliason said, joking. “So, you know, if we put the camera down on the 16th and then it was gone..."
But ghost stories aside — Eliason and Smith said they’re driven to keep searching for wrecks by the challenge, the history and the chance to answer long-standing questions.
"It's just always interesting to solve a mystery that hadn't been solved before. And just to see the final resting place,” Smith said. “(There’s) always contemplation, thinking about what that last circumstance was like. … Certainly, having been out on the lake in our share of weather that, on a minor scale, is pretty unappealing — I can't imagine what it's like being out when ... it's bad enough that it's life-threatening for those big boats."
To learn more
Jerry Eliason will give a presentation on the Hudson at the annual Gales of November conference held in Duluth on Nov. 2-3. Find more information on the conference website.