One hundred and twenty years after it went missing, the 292-foot wreckage of a rare whaleboat barge has been identified at the bottom of Michigan’s Lake Superior.
Barge 129 was one of only 44 whalebacks ever made. A shipping innovation for its time, the design featured curved sides and pointed bows that look like a pig’s snout. The distinctive vessel style ferried cargo across the Great Lakes in the late 19th century.
“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,” says Corey Adkins of Michigan’s Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society (the Society). “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.”
This low-profile design also, unfortunately, made whalebacks vulnerable to collisions and hatch failure. This flaw shortened the design’s deployment and is ultimately what caused Barge 129 to wreck.
In the fall of 1902, the steamer Maunaloa towed Barge 129, laden with iron ore, out of Duluth, Minnesota. On October 13, the towline broke during a storm. When the Maunaloa attempted to reattach it, wind and waves caused the vessels to collide and the steamer’s anchor ripped through the side of Barge 129. “There was nothing they could do. The historical reports say the barge sank in 10 to 15 minutes,” Adkins says.
Barge 129’s entire crew escaped before the whaleback plummeted over 650 feet 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.”
There the shipwreck lay undiscovered for over 120 years. Contemporary reports misplaced the wreck in shallower water further south on the lake, but the barge actually sits in deep water to the north—far out of reach of divers and most search teams.
“The fact that this was the last whaleback vessel to sink on the Great Lakes that hadn’t been discovered, this is one we wanted to find for a very long time,” says the Society’s executive director Bruce Lynn.
Researchers initially located the wreckage by sonar in 2021 and returned this August with a deep-diving robotic drone to confirm the vessel’s identity.
“Once we were able to get the ROV down on it, when we got up near the bow, there was no question. That bow was unmistakable. We knew what we had, and that was really exciting,” Lynn says. “We were the first human eyes to see it in over 120 years.”
Barge 129 was the last unaccounted-for whaleback. One intact whaleback still exists: the SS Meteor is moored in Superior, Wisconsin as a floating museum exhibit.
Lynn added, “Finding this unique of a vessel … now gives us this ability to tell its story and history as we go forward.”