Foreword - Shipwrecks of Lake Erie Volume One

Foreword to Shipwrecks of Lake Erie Volume One
by William H. Thomas, PhD  preeminent explorer, conservationist and anthropologist 

"Since most of us no longer travel by boat, shipwrecks have become something abstract — a romantic notion associated with tropical seas and long lost pirate treasure. Yet most of the world’s shipwrecks held no treasure and are not found in the tropics. Most ships and crews went to the bottom in the cold murky waters of the north, delivering the mundane trade goods that make life possible. 

Lake Erie is the shallowest of the Great Lakes and the graveyard of over 2,000 ships. It is part of the chain of lakes that connected the people and products of America’s heartland to the world. These waters are cold and the weather is fickle. Storms brew quickly and when they do, Lake Erie becomes treacherous. The boats that ply these waters are workboats, designed to ferry goods. They have a dignity that goes with hard work, but their beauty is lost on most people. Consequently, the bottom of the lake is littered with modest ships that succumbed to the inherent dangers of hauling heavy loads over a shallow, unpredictable body of water. On the bottom, these shipwrecks are often well preserved but lonely, melancholy figures that stand in stark relief to blank sandy bottom on which they rest.

Erik Petkovic is an explorer and a diver who knows Lake Erie intimately. Born in Cleveland, Ohio, he has spent much of his adult life exploring the lake and in Shipwrecks of Lake Erie Volume One, he shares his knowledge of some of the lake’s most interesting wrecks. Like any good explorer, Erik is meticulous in his research and preparation. Each of the chapters in this volume is the product of years of combing public records, historical volumes and newspaper files to glean fact from fiction. For the intrepid, Erik provides not only the location and depth of each wreck, but also a personal guided tour of each ship, that will allow a diver to experience the most compelling features of each shipwreck.

Yet, like the best explorers, Erik is as much poet as technician. He understands the romance of a journey by boat, as well as the courage that it takes to continually make those journeys on Lake Erie’s fickle waters. His empathy for the captains and the crews that lived and died on this lake is what makes Shipwrecks of Lake Erie Volume One more than a guidebook and brings the story of each shipwreck to life. It is his ability to capture the moment when the fate of the ship hangs in the balance and put the reader in the wheelhouse or on the deck when the fate of the ship is sealed, that makes this book a good read.

Consider the wreck of the Admiral.  Fourteen men died towing a tanker barge full of oil from Toledo to Cleveland after a sudden snow squall caught them in December of 1942.  The Admiral was pulled to the bottom when the towline fouled and the barge swamped. The explorer in Erik provides descriptions of the history of the Admiral and the wreck as it can be found today. The poet in him gives the reader the one image that will forever define the Admiral — the intact towline still that can still be found hanging from the Admiral’s stern. 

The short-lived Brunswick collided with the Carlingford in 1881. After midnight, the captain of the Brunswick leaves the helm to eat and enjoy a smoke. In the time it took the captain to finish his meal, the two ships collided. Hurrying to inspect the damage, the captain tells the First Mate “This is a bad job.” Twenty minutes later all hands have abandoned ship, as both ships slip beneath the surface.

Imagine standing on the deck of one of the other vessels plying the lake, witness to the last moments of the Boland — it took four minutes to sink. Imagine the panic on the Erie when the passengers and crew discovered that the ship did not carry enough lifeboats. 254 died when the ship sank twelve minutes after an explosion below decks. Likewise, the image of men clinging to the masts of the Dundee in its final moments would have been burned in your memory forever.

Now imagine you are John Kane, sleeping off your birthday celebration in the hold of the Cortland when it collides with the Morning Star. Within minutes, a shard from the mizzenmast will crash through the decks and skewer your face from cheek to cheek. The Morning Star and the Cortland become locked in a dance of death, grinding against each other as the Morning Star’s paddlewheel chews up the Cortland. You won’t have any time for self-pity. In fifteen minutes, both ships will sink as you scramble from deck to deck in a desperate attempt to survive.

In Shipwrecks of Lake Erie Volume One, you read about the heroism that's part of the sailor's life: fighting fires, rescuing others and the resignation that comes when your situation is hopeless. You begin to understand how quickly things can go bad on the water when a fire, explosion or collision give you minutes to live. You sense the courage it took to rescue someone — knowing that the rescuers may be drawn into the same maelstrom and lose their ship and lives. You experience the horror of watching survivors lose their grip on a raft and be lost forever.  

The poet knows that Lake Erie and its’ ships embody the timeless struggle between man and nature.  Lake Erie remains as unpredictable and dangerous today as ever. The tension of a captain and crew tempting the fates to make one last run are as gut wrenching as they always were. The shallow lake, terrible weather and heavy loads continue to take their toll and the shipwrecks are mute testimony to this ongoing struggle.  Most of us will never know the terror of a sinking ship or have our mettle tested in the struggle to survive the aftermath. 

There is a beauty in this struggle — a beauty that Erik memorializes by telling these stories. Whether you are an armchair explorer or actually plan to visit these wrecks, Shipwrecks of Lake Erie Volume One will give you a window to some of the most compelling shipwrecks in the northern hemisphere.  This is both a wonderful guidebook and a good read that will serve aficionados of the Great Lakes for generations to come."