THOMAS WILSON

Thomas Wilson wreck painting by Kurt Carlson

1902: The whaleback steamer THOMAS WILSON sank after a collision with the GEORGE G. HADLEY a mile off the Duluth piers while outbound with iron ore and nine lives were lost located at 46° 47′ 0″ N, 92° 4′ 10″ W

Here’s an account of the collision written by the News Tribune’s Chuck Frederick in May 1996, when the wreck site was named one of Minnesota’s most endangered historic sites because of damage caused by ships’ anchors:

On a glorious June day in 1902, the whaleback steamer Thomas Wilson sailed quietly across glass-still water through the Duluth entry and into Lake Superior.

Less than a mile out, the wooden freighter George Hadley was changing course. The captain had decided not to enter the harbor in Duluth. He steamed the ship instead toward the Superior entry — and into the path of the Wilson.

Neither boat was able to yield. The nose of the 287-foot Hadley slammed into the broadside of the Wilson. She went down fast. Water poured into cargo holds that had been left unsecured. The captain figured he could save time by bolting down the hatch covers during the trip across the calm lake.

Within minutes, the Wilson’s mast was all that was left poking through the still water about a half-mile from the Duluth entry. The Hadley was able to beach itself along Minnesota Point where it could later be salvaged and repaired.

Nine crew members went down with the Wilson, a ship that is now part of Northland shipping lore. She was built in 1892 in Superior at the American Steel Barge Co., an ancestor to today’s Fraser Shipyards. The company was owned by Alexander McDougall, who designed the whaleback steamers, including the SS Meteor, a sister ship to the Wilson that now is open for tours on Superior’s Barker’s Island. The Wilson’s anchors are displayed on the lawn in front of the Marine Museum in Duluth’s Canal Park.

The wreck is popular among divers, who wait for northeasterly winds to push in clear water. But it’s not the ship it used to be, they say. “It has been utterly destroyed” by the anchors dropped by Great Lakes vessels, said Elmer Engman, a Proctor diver who owns Inner Space Scuba Equipment along Miller Trunk Highway.

“It looks like a ship that’s been in a war,” said Scott Anfinson of the State Historic Preservation Office in St. Paul. “It looks like someone’s been dropping bombs on it. Instead of colliding with one ship, it looks like it was hit by five or six boats all at once.”

The Wilson’s deck has been destroyed by the anchors, but the forward cabins and bow structure are still intact.

News from the stranded whaleback steamer THOMAS WILSON at Baileys harbor is not as favorable as the reports at first received. captain Martin Swain of the wrecker FAVORITE reported that the WILSON lies on the old lighthouse Shoal, about three-quarters of a mile from shore. The forward end of the steamer is free. The engine-room is full of water, showing that the ship’s bottom is badly cut up. The hull has a list to starboard, which may prevent the use of hydraulic jacks in launching her off the rocks. The weather yesterday was favorable for wrecking. The reef at Bailey’s Harbor is famous among the old-time mariners as a good spot to avoid. A large number of vessels have gone ashore there and countless more have missed going ashore in clear weather because they believed their own eyes rather than the compass by which they were supposed to be steering. It is a fact well known by those commanders whose courses have been laid near the reef that the “local attraction,” or whatever it may be called, will cause a very marked deviation in the compass whenever the vessel get within a certain undefined distance from the shore. In clear weather and daylight it is possible to ignore to ignore the compass, but in cloudy or stormy weather the vessels that venture too close to the danger line within which the shore attraction prevails is apt to come upon something decidedly unexpected and unpleasant.
Assorted newspaper Clippings
October 11, 1901

The whaleback steamer THOMAS WILSON was released from Bailey’s harbor reef at 7:40 o’clock yesterday morning. The wrecking tug FAVORITE took the steamer in tow for a dry-dock. The WILSON is thought to be in better shape than was indicated when she went ashore.
Assorted newspaper Clippings
October 16, 1901

THOMAS WILSON. Built April 30, 1892 Whaleback Bulk Propeller – Steel
U. S. No. 145616. 1713 gt – 1318 nt 308.0 x 38.0 x 24.0
Sunk in collision with steamer GEORGE G. HADLY, June 7, 1902, 1 miles south of Duluth, Minn., piers; 9 lives lost.
American Barge Co., Superior, Master Shipbuilding List
Institute for Great Lakes research
Perrysburg, Ohio.