By his own admission, David Frew’s groundbreaking 1993 catalogue of the shipwrecks of Lake Erie wasn’t perfect.
Forty books later, the avid sailor and professor at Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pennsylvania has updated his original work and filled in the gaps to reflect modern scholarship about the “ghost fleet of Lake Erie.”
Frew said his latest publication, entitled Shipwrecks of Lake Erie: Tragedy in the Quadrangle, will appeal to fans and devotees of local wrecks.
About 70 people filled the upper hall of the Port Dover Harbour Museum last month to hear from Frew, who made it his life’s work to research the ill-fated vessels that did not emerge from the 2,500 square mile area around Long Point he coined “the Lake Erie Quadrangle.”
“We thought it was cute to name it the Quadrangle because everyone was excited about the Bermuda Triangle, and it had the air of mystery to it,” he recalled of his first book, which was written with and inspired by renowned Port Rowan beachcomber Dave Stone.
“Dave Stone is maybe the best storyteller I ever heard,” Frew said. Stone would keep him spellbound with tales from the area known as “the graveyard of the Great Lakes,” and soon Frew found himself spending a lot of time at Stone’s Long Point cottage, researching the fate of those spectral ships.
That first book, Waters of Repose: The Lake Erie Quadrangle, sold 20,000 copies – “a huge success in the regional publishing business,” Frew said proudly – and while it served to put Long Point Bay on the map of maritime scholarship, Frew quickly realized that he had missed some things.
Though he used a pioneering computer analysis program to map the wrecks, Frew’s data – based on Coast Guard records and files from marine shipping actuary Lloyd’s of London – was incomplete. He left out commercial fishing tugs and two War of 1812 ships, and neglected local newspaper accounts since they were often contradictory.
He now admits he should have listened to residents with a living memory of the wrecks, since after the book was published he received a few pointed phone calls telling him that certain wrecks weren’t where he’d said they were. Some callers even had the photographs to prove it.
“And I’m just beginning with what we did wrong,” Frew quipped.
Twenty years after that first effort to map the shipwrecks, the author set out to pen a more definitive survey.
“Definitive” is a relative term in shipwreck scholarship, Frew noted, since even with modern scanning equipment it is possible to lose ships in the thick muck that coats the lakebed.
He estimates that of the thousands of ships that rest
at the bottom of Lake Erie, only about 150 of them are diveable – though “beat up and caved in,” they are still recognizable as ships. The rest have been churned up by Erie’s tumultuous waves, which can turn even relatively recent wrecks into flotsam.
In the shallowest of the Great Lakes, thousands of ships fell victim to storms, collision,
explosions, ice floes and other fatal mishaps. Frew said some wrecks were counted twice and others were not reported at all, making an accurate number difficult to calculate.
to his research methods allowed Frew to update the number of marine disasters in the Quadrangle since 1797 to 491, up from 429 wrecks counted in the original book.
Considering all the rickety old schooners plying the 19th-century trade route long after their best-before date, Frew said it’s a wonder there weren’t more wrecks.
The golden age of Lake Erie shipping was the century beginning in 1812. The gradual advent of steamships made Erie passable and greatly reduced the number of wrecks, although there have been several modern disasters at sea that still stir emotions, such as the fish tug Captain K in 1991 and the Carol Sue II in 1999.
Today, 1,000-foot ships carry the cargo once borne by several small ships, reducing lake traffic and the likelihood of collisions.
The new book confirms Frew and Stone’s original hypothesis that the Lake Erie Quadrangle “contains the world’s greatest shipwreck density.”
Frew delves into the fate of a ship long known as “Mystery Schooner X” and now revealed as the sailing schooner St. James, which was shipping grain from Ohio in 1870 when it mysteriously did not return to port.
It seems moisture seeped into the cargo hold and caused the grain stuffed inside to expand, putting pressure on the ship’s creaky skeleton and causing it to sink gently to the lake floor, where it remains in near-pristine condition today.
“It looks like you could still sail it, if you could figure out how to raise it,” Frew said.
The exact location of the fabled Marquette and Bessemer No. 2 – “the holy grail of shipwrecks” – remains a mystery a century after the 338-foot car-ferry went down in 1909 carrying a load of coal cars.
The lake also holds four airplanes, including a Lancaster bomber that went down during a WWII training mission and a Curtiss biplane flown by Earl “Birdman” Sandt.
“I love the stories,” said Frew, giving credit to Stone, historian Harry Barrett, diver Mike Fletcher and others for bringing shipwrecks into the public imagination.
Nine-year-old Cameron Fairburn called Frew’s talk “awesome.”
“I like shipwrecks, so when I heard there was a shipwreck talk here, I got very excited,” said Fairburn, who came to the museum from Caledonia with his grandmother, Pat Wickett.
“It’s just all the history,” Fairburn said.
“It’s very cool.”