One of my favorite parts of diving shipwrecks is the clues left behind from the ship’s final moments.
Quite often you will see the ship “as is,” meaning exactly how it was topside in the frantic minutes before succumbing. Of course, the impact of the vessel hitting bottom and the course of time will break up the ship, but many of those “as is” clues will remain.
That is what intrigued me the most while listening to diver Tony Gramer describing the loss of the steamer Fred McBrier, which sunk in just seven minutes after being struck midship by another vessel in 1890 in a thick fog.
The McBrier sits in 89 to 104 feet of water in the Straits of Mackinac, about nine miles west of the Mackinac Bridge.
The ship is upright and the rudder is hard a-starboard, and the throttle was set at a very low speed. That means the ship was moving cautiously in conditions with poor visibility when it tried at the last minute to swerve out of the way of the oncoming ship. That moment in time is forever preserved at the bottom of Lake Michigan, where both the rudder and the throttle remain in those same positions.
That night in October 1890, the Fred McBrier was loaded with iron ore, towing two schooner barges. She, along with the larger propeller, the Progress, had exchanged fog horn signals, but the signals were misinterpreted. Moments later, the much larger Progress emerged from the thick soup and plowed into the Fred McBrier enbedding itself about midship portside. At that time, the Progress was stuck into the McBrier and stayed there until all of the crew got off safely. When the Progress pulled back and away from the McBrier, the latter sunk in three minutes.
Gramer first dove the wreck in 1979. At that time, visibility was so poor, he could hardly see his hand in front of his face. He dove it again in 1986 – same thing. Then, he dove it again in 2011 and, thanks to zebra mussels, the visibility was 50-60 feet.
Here is my interview with Tony Gramer regarding the Fred McBrier at The Dossin Great Lakes Museum on Belle Isle.