He wanted to save the dog.
A century ago, on Oct. 11, 1923, the Huronton, an empty 238-foot freighter, was accidentally hit broadside by another freighter, the Cetus, in Lake Superior, one of the Great Lakes. The 17-man crew of the Huronton quickly scrambled to safety aboard the Cetus.
But Richard Simpell, the first mate, decided he had to save the 18th member of the crew: a bulldog that served as the ship’s mascot. Mr. Simpell jumped back on board the sinking Huronton, cut the dog loose and carried it to safety, as The Buffalo Evening News reported at the time.
The Huronton went down in 18 minutes. No human or canine lives were lost.
The ship sank to “100 fathoms,” The Buffalo Courier reported poetically, or 600 feet. Actually, it sank to 800 feet. We know this because it was found this summer, lying at the bottom of the lake.
Which raises the question: Lake Superior is 31,700 square miles, so how do you possibly find a sunken ship out there?
A century ago, hundreds of freighters plied the Great Lakes, bringing goods from Michigan to Minnesota or from Ontario to Chicago. And just about every year some would sink. The most remembered today is probably the Edmund Fitzgerald, a freighter that sank in 1975 and inspired a song by the Canadian folk singer Gordon Lightfoot.
The Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society regularly sends out a research vessel seeking sunken ships. It tows an armored cable attached to a small, remotely operated vehicle with high definition cameras and high-intensity lighting.
Finding a ship “can be kind of a tedious process at times,” said Bruce E. Lynn, the executive director of the society. “We jokingly say it’s like mowing the lawn. You’re going back and forth and covering this area.”
It’s not quite a needle-in-a-haystack challenge though. Searchers stick to the old shipping lanes. And sometimes they are looking for specific wrecks.
Mr. Lynn said one ambition was to find two World War I-era French Navy minesweepers that were missing somewhere in Lake Superior. A group of three made in Canada were crossing and encountered a storm. Two sank, but crew members on the third were able to recount the incident, giving hunters some clues.
Once a ship is found, the challenge becomes identifying it. “There’s a lot of shipwrecks out there,” Mr. Lynn said.
“Particularly in a case of a wreck where there are survivors, we’ll have a general idea where that ship is,” Mr. Lynn said. “Not exactly, because sometimes they will be reported as having gone down here, and it’s 20 miles away.” In the case of the Huronton, which was found 20 miles northwest of Whitefish Point on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, “it was really, really close to where it was supposed to be.”
“One of the dead giveaways for this one was how modern it was by 1923 standards,” Mr. Lynn said. “When we start seeing electric lights on a steel-hulled vessel we’re pretty sure we know which ship we’re looking at.”
He added: “We get lucky sometimes, too. We came across a part of a hull which had an ornate nameboard and the name ‘Atlanta’ just jumped off the side of the ship. That was really lucky.”
The shipwreck society is a nonprofit that receives its financing from visits to its museums, donations and grants. Treasure hunting is not a motivation. “The prime directive is, we don’t touch these things,” Mr. Lynn said. “We create a snapshot in time of that shipwreck.”
“And anything in Michigan waters,” he added, “becomes property of the state of Michigan. We would have to apply and have a very good reason to pull something up off a wreck.”
At least a dozen shipwrecks have been discovered in the Great Lakes in the past two years. Mr. Lynn said the Huronton was special because of the extreme depth at which it was found, but also because of its story.
“Think of these ships,” Mr. Lynn said. “They’re underway. You had fog, compounded by forest fires in the area, and you probably couldn’t see from one end of the ship to the other. And they didn’t have radar.”
After the crash, “the captain on the Cetus realized within about two seconds,” Mr. Lynn said. “He kept his wits about him.” He kept the ship moving forward, and essentially plugged the hole that his ship had made in the side of the Huronton, giving its crew time to escape.
Mr. Lynn summed it up: “If you could call any shipwreck a happy ending, this one was one of them.”
Not least for the bulldog.