Three vessels from a giant lumber company’s fleet set out across Lake Superior one day in November 1914, with 28 crew among them.
The steamship C.F. Curtis was towing two wooden schooner barges, the Selden E. Marvin and the Annie M. Peterson. They were carrying more than 3 million board feet of lumber.
But shortly after leaving Baraga, Mich., a storm came up. Wind, snow and waves battered the vessels and all three disappeared off Grand Marais, Mich., with the loss of everyone on board. The ships’ whereabouts were unknown for more than a century.
Now, the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society says it has photos and videos of the Curtis, a wooden steamship built in 1881, and the Marvin, built in 1882, at rest on the bottom of Lake Superior.
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Society president Bruce Lynn called it “one of the more tragic stories of shipwreck on the Great Lakes and certainly... one of Lake Superior’s enduring mysteries.”
The Curtis initially was located during a survey in 2021 — a survey that also turned up other sonar hits for possible wrecks. One of those turned out to be the Marvin. Underwater robots descended to the wrecks to confirm the finds last year.
The whereabouts of the Peterson, built in 1874, remain unknown.
Accounts at the time the ships sank said rescuers found 19 bodies from the wrecks, including two men who initially made it to shore. The first mate on the Peterson, William Kolpack, had climbed out of the water and nearly reached a telephone line to the nearby lifesaving station when he succumbed to the storm on shore. Another crew member from the Curtis reached the beach and made it to the Grand Marais harbor, where he also died.
“It would seem that the lifeboats on the Curtis and Peterson had been launched in good order as the women cooks of the Curtis had even put on their fur coats and jewelry,” reads an account in “Lake Superior Shipwrecks” by Julius Wolff. “Probably, the ship’s boats had capsized in the wicked surf just offshore.”
Photos captured by the historical society show the aftermath on the lake bottom: Scattered around the shipwrecks are equipment and rigging — and possibly a late crew member’s shirt.
Society spokesperson Corey Adkins said the two wrecks were found more than 20 miles offshore in deep water. The Curtis is about 500 feet down, the Marvin about 600 feet down — well out of reach of conventional divers, and in water cold enough that marine life hasn’t covered the wrecks. Paint and draft markings on the hulls are still visible.
Adkins said the society still has three unconfirmed sonar hits that it will be investigating this season, hoping to track down the last of the trio of Hines Lumber Co. ships that went down that night in 1914.
“This summer, we are going to be hunting for Peterson quite regularly and aggressively,” Adkins said. “A lot of the historical records put these ships where they’re not. ... It's one of the one of the bigger mysteries that we almost have unraveled.”