Sunken Treasure

The pilothouse of the Ohio. (Photo courtesy of the Eliason Video System)

Dan Fountain of Negaunee Township spent a good deal of time this summer searching for the downed steamer Choctaw in Lake Huron.

His efforts paid off, and then some.

On July 15, Fountain, 66, and his boating partner, Kurt Fosburg of Negaunee Township, discovered a shipwreck on the fourth pass of its search area with the use of a Garmin 94SV sonar with a homegrown Tow Fish.

Read Fountain’s Facebook post: “Not having done our homework re: other shipwrecks in the area, we assumed it was CHOCTAW and declared mission accomplished. I returned two weeks later with Ken Merryman and crew and used a tethered camera — the Eliason Video System — to get hi-definition video and photos of the wreck, and realized that it was a wooden steamer. A quick check of Dave Swayze’s database came up with OHIO as a likely candidate; further examination of the video matched up a number of features.”

Fountain told The Mining Journal: “We kept getting pictures of it, and nothing matched up with the photos that we had of the Choctaw.”

The Ohio in operation, one of the ships whose wreck two local men discovered this summer. Other researchers found the wrecks as well. (Photo courtesy of the C. Patrick Labadie Collection/Thunder May National Marine Sanctuary, Alpena)

It was an intriguing situation, but one that eventually led to the correct identification of the find as the Ohio.

“It’s a wooden steamer that sank in 1894,” Fountain said.

According to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, the Ohio collided with the Ironton, with both vessels sinking in half an hour. Five members of the Ironton’s crew, including Capt. Peter Girard, perished in the incident.

On Aug. 13, Fountain took out his boat solo and found another wreck a mile and a half from the Ohio. Ken Merryman and crew, he said, returned on Aug. 20 to downstate Presque Isle, along the shores of Lake Huron. Taking a video of the wreck, it was confirmed it was the Choctaw.

However, on Sept. 1, Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary officials announced they had found the wooden freighter Ohio and steel-hulled steamer Choctaw during a spring expedition.

Fountain

“They actually found them back in May, but they didn’t say anything about it,” Fountain told The Mining Journal. “They kept it quiet while they finished their research.”

Fountain, however, still has the satisfaction of locating the wrecks himself.

They weren’t his first maritime discoveries. In 2016, he and others successfully located the steamer J.S. Seaverns, which sank near Canada’s Michipicoten Harbor in Lake Superior in May 1884.

In July, he and Fosburg took to Lake Huron to look for the Choctaw — whose remains NOAA said likely meet several eligibility requirements for the National Register of Historic Places — after researching its possible location.

The Choctaw, Fountain noted, represented a notable stage in steel freighters in the Great Lakes.

The Choctaw, another vessel that was discovered by the two local men, along with other researchers. (Photo courtesy of the C. Patrick Labadie Collection/Thunder May National Marine Sanctuary, Alpena)

“It’s just a piece of history,” said Fountain, who noted some people believe the Choctaw is important because it was an evolutionary style of vessel.

The design of the cargo carrier Choctaw, NOAA noted, had a conventional bow, but the ship’s metal sides slanted outward from the main deck at the waterline at almost a 45-degree angle.

“With the slanted sides or curved sides, waves would come, wash right over it, and not really have that much effect on the vessel,” Fountain said. “Good idea, but it caused other problems as far as loading and unloading hatches, that sort of thing.”

So, that design didn’t last.

Neither did the Choctaw.

On July 12, 1915, off Presque Isle in Lake Huron, while up-bound in a dense fog with a cargo of coal, the Choctaw collided with the Canadian Steamship Company freighter Wahcondah, according to NOAA. The ship sank in seven minutes but there was no loss of life.

In fact, the Wahcondah assisted after the collision.

“They were able to pick up the survivors of the Choctaw,” Fountain said.

Fosburg said he was just the boat driver on the trip, which he insisted was Fountain’s project.

“He put a lot of work in that,” Fosburg said.

There also was a lot of persistence in finding the Choctaw after the initial Ohio discovery, with Fountain going out alone to continue the search.

“By 9:30 that morning I had found another wreck on the bottom,” Fountain said. “I figured, ‘This is probably the Choctaw,’ but we better get video before I say for sure that it is.”

Fountain will present a program about the shipwrecks at the Nov. 3-4 Gales of November conference at the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center in Duluth, Minnesota.

Expect Fountain to put even more effort in his maritime undertakings as he said he will continue to look for downed vessels.

It should be a challenge.

“There are a lot of wrecks still to be found,” Fountain said. “Not too many of them have good information on where they are. A lot of these are what the old sailors call, ‘They went missing.'”

There’s also the joy to be found in a deep-lake discovery.

“For me, it’s just the fun of finding it,” Fountain said of the Choctaw. “It’s one that people have looked for.”

And apparently one not easily found.

Christie Bleck can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. Her email address is cbleck@miningjournal.net.