Whaleback barge lost for 120 years discovered in depths of Lake Superior

A sonar image of a shipwreck, showing the ship broken into pieces
The Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society released this sonar image of Barge 129, lying at the bottom of Lake Superior in more than 600 feet of water. The barge, which was manned by a small crew, sank after colliding with its tow vessel, the Maunaloa, during a storm on Oct. 13, 1902.
Courtesy Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society

A rare Great Lakes vessel built in the Twin Ports and lost more than a century ago has been found and photographed at a depth of more than 600 feet in Lake Superior.

Barge 129, of the unique, curved "whaleback" design, sank on Oct. 13, 1902 — exactly 120 years ago.

The 292-foot vessel was “one of the very last whaleback barges people were looking for in the Great Lakes. So it's a pretty big discovery, it being the one that was lost for so long,” said Corey Adkins with the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

“And now it's found.”

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society

The historical society said Barge 129 was initially located by sonar during a search expedition in 2021, and searchers then returned this summer with a deep-diving robot camera and confirmed the vessel's identity. It was one of dozens of the iconic rounded-deck vessels that were a 19th century shipping innovation.

“They were built to go through the water quicker and more sleek, so they wouldn't be such an issue for the ships towing them,” Adkins said. “If you saw them, unloaded, they would look like a big cigar floating down the lake. If you saw them loaded, they were almost two to three feet above water, so you could barely see the top. That's why they called them the whaleback, because it looks like a whale back going through the water.”

A ship takes on a load of coal
Shipwreck hunters have found the wreck of Barge 129, one of the dozens of innovative "whaleback" vessels, built mostly in Duluth-Superior at the end of the 19th century. The barge is shown here taking on a load of coal at some point before it sank in Lake Superior in October 1902.
Courtesy Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society

But their low profile also made them vulnerable to collisions and hatch failures, which ultimately doomed the design.

Adkins said Barge 129 had left Duluth with a load of iron ore in the fall of 1902, towed by the steamer Maunaloa. He said the tow line broke in a storm on Oct. 13, 1902, as the two vessels approached Sault Ste. Marie on the east end of the lake.

“So the Maunaloa turned around to try to reattach the tow line when the waves and the wind crashed the two vessels together. And then the Maunaloa’s anchor ripped through the side of Barge 129,” Adkins said. “There was nothing they could do. The historical reports say the barge sank in 10 to 15 minutes.”

Part of the bow of a wrecked ship at the bottom of Lake Superior
The signature three-ring fitting on the bow of Barge 129, which gave the so-called whaleback vessels their nickname "pig boats," are visible in this image from the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society, taken by a remotely operated diving robot in the summer of 2022. The image shows anchor chains, ROV tether and the tow rope that parted from the steamer Maunaloa, dooming Barge 129 in a Lake Superior storm in October 1902.
Courtesy Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society

The steamer rescued the entire crew on the low-riding barge. The vessel plummeted through hundreds of feet of water and smashed into the lakebed.

“When that thing hit the bottom, it just disintegrated,” Adkins said. “It hit so hard it’s folded like a V form, and the bow sheared off.”

Adkins said contemporary reports put the vessel in shallower water, but the wreck was found farther north on the lake — 35 miles off the Michigan shore — and at a greater depth, far out of the reach of divers or most searchers.

Adkins said it appeared in the video taken of the wreck that any identification has rusted away or fallen off, but he said Barge 129 was the last whaleback that hadn’t been accounted for.

Only one remains above water: the S.S. Meteor museum ship in Superior, Wis.