A few days later, a second fire swept through the wreckage. Burned down to its water line, the 240-foot steamer sank to the lake floor, 18 feet down.
Eighty-nine years later, the Prince's remains are shrouded in the silt-heavy brownish fog of Lake Erie's waters. The hold's floors, made of wood beams, run in long, orderly patterns, while piles of planks stick up in random directions -- remnants of the walls that supported the burned-away deck. Sometimes you can see the grain of the wood, weathered and soot-gray. But most of the ship is mottled with swaying green algae and thousands of tiny gray-white zebra mussels, their dark mouths hanging slightly open.
Bursts of orange light up the wreck: spots of rust on the metal bands that held the hull in place. Some pieces of machinery still stick up high above the rest of the ship -- parts of a boiler and a shaft that drove the propeller. Tiny fish drift and dart through the algae, and two smallmouth bass hover next to some planks, their faces frozen in permanent frowns, their orange eyes staring at the divers intruding on their home.
One of the divers, Patrix Heschel, has visited the Prince 30 times. An instructor at Port Clinton's New Wave Dive Shop, he often takes students out to the Prince for an easy lake dive.
He's seen 33 wrecks in Lake Erie. "To me, they're beautiful underwater," he says. "For me to come up on something that large, sitting on the bottom, to be able to figure out what boat it is and what style it was, is pretty cool."
Heschel, who started diving six years ago, is one of thousands of people who are part of a boom in Lake Erie shipwreck diving. Every weekend this summer, hundreds of divers will brave the lake's cool, dark waters and seek out its biggest secrets: the ruined remains of schooners, freighters, and passenger ferries -- the submerged graves of sailors and immigrants.
"If you go back 20 years in Lake Erie, you could have counted on both hands and both feet the number of people diving the lake," estimates Michael Wachter, co-author of the book Erie Wrecks. "Today the number is in the thousands."
One reason for the rush to dive Lake Erie is the algae-munching zebra mussel, which has made the water clearer since it invaded the Great Lakes. Other changes have made wreck diving more accessible: Scuba gear has gotten lighter and safer, and shipwreck coordinates, which longtime divers used to keep secret, are now published in books.
Last year, Heschel and the other New Wave instructors trained and certified 150 new divers, about three times as many as five years ago. Most of their students, says New Wave owner Rod Althaus, go on to visit the wrecks in the lake.
Some say the Great Lakes have the world's best collection of shipwrecks, because the fresh, cool water preserves sunken ships much better than the oceans' corrosive salt. And since Erie is the shallowest Great Lake -- about 40 to 60 feet deep near Cleveland -- recreational divers can easily visit many of its wrecks. Divers have found about 300 of the 2,000 ships that have sunk in Lake Erie; some date from before the Civil War, while one went down in 1993. About 55 charted wrecks lie near the Cleveland area, within a few miles of shore.
"The biggest allure," says Steve Bowles of Buckeye Diving School in Bedford, "is to go someplace where most everybody can't go."
Looking for Gold
Michael Wachter steers his boat east, past the tall electrical plant on Avon Point, as the Cleveland skyline rises far off in the distance. He watches two small gray computer screens next to the wheel. One shows him a picture of the horizon and marks the location of his target: a nearby shipwreck. The other, a sonar readout, shows the lake bottom: a thick, rough gray line, wavering at 40 feet deep.
As the boat reaches the spot on the first screen, the line on the sonar jumps to 32 feet. "Mark it!" Wachter shouts, and someone at the back of the boat throws an orange bottle into the water.
The boat circles several times, trying to find the wreck again. Michael's wife, Georgeann, drops the anchor twice, the chain rumbling as it unrolls. The second time, the anchor catches something: either a steel barge called the Craftsman, which sank in 1958, or its crane, which lies nearby.
The Wachters' friends, Gary Humel and Dave and Annette Soule, don their scuba gear. To protect them from the still-cold May waters, Dave and Annette put on latex dry suits, while Humel pulls on a neoprene wet suit. Each wears a belt of square lead weights to help them sink, a heavy air tank with two air hoses, and an inflatable vest. As Humel jumps into the water, Dave shows off his other gear: a combination compass, depth gauge, and pressure gauge; a flashlight; a handheld computer that times his dive at various depths; and a knife strapped to his leg, in case he gets caught in an abandoned fish net.
The Soules slip into the water, then swim along the side of the boat. They're heavily encased in their gear, with big masks over their eyes and air regulators in their mouths; the hoods of their suits cover most of their heads. They look alien and vulnerable, tiny figures in the vast lake.
They grab onto the anchor line, which leads down at a sharp angle, and they descend close together, quickly disappearing beneath the surface. For several minutes, a thin trail of their bubbles stretches across the waves toward the tiny orange bottle marking the wreck.
The Soules have dived on more than a hundred wrecks in Lake Erie. They're the leaders of the Lorain-based Lake Erie Wreck Divers club, whose members explore sunken ships every weekend in the summer.
The Wachters, their frequent diving companions, have seen about 200 Lake Erie wrecks -- most of the known ones -- and they've compiled their observations, historical research, and navigational coordinates into two books, Erie Wrecks and Erie Wrecks East. This stretch of lakeshore is especially familiar to them, close to their house in Avon Lake and their home port in Lorain.
"The Sand Merchant's there, two miles that way," says Georgeann, pointing to the northeast. "The Ivanhoe is right in there," she adds, pointing west.
Thirty years ago, before more sophisticated sonar technology made wreck-finding easier and before electronic navigation systems gave coordinates for return trips, shipwreck hunting demanded long hours for lonely searches.
"At that time, we found a wreck through research, the captain's log, newspaper accounts, whatever," recalls Bob Ericsson, who saw his first sunken ship in Lake Erie in the early 1970s. "You dragged the bottom or used a bottom recorder" -- a simple sonar that shows the depth directly below the boat. Once searchers detected something promising on the lake bottom, "you would take a grapple and line, and tow until you snag it, then go down the line and check out what you had. And hopefully, it was a wreck."
When they did find a ship, searchers had to rely on landmarks on shore as well as records of speed and compass bearings to get them back to their discovery.
Many searches turned up nothing. "When a wreck was found, it was like gold," Ericsson says.
Clear Views Ahead
The Soules and Gary Humel come back up the anchor line, their trail of bubbles growing stronger as they near the surface, as if the water around them were boiling. When they climb up the ladder, water pours off them.
Someone asks Annette what it was like at the bottom. "Anybody got some chocolate milk? Pour it over this guy!" she answers. In other words, visibility was poor, with silt and algae creating a sort of brown fog.
"It wasn't that bad," counters Dave, who reports that the anchor actually caught on the Craftsman's crane, which snapped off the boat after it sank.
Humel set out from the crane with his compass and a line trailing behind him.
"I swam up and down the crane a little bit, then I headed west on my compass and laid my line, and I hit the barge," he says. He describes the ship as 80 feet long, with a flat top. A cable lies across it, and the mount where the crane once stood is clearly visible near the center.
Amid the cloudy, greenish water, dimly lit like twilight, the barge stood out. "You could see darkness. That's how I found it initially -- it looks dark," Humel says. "And I just turned on it. It's like a shadow."
Full, panoramic views of an entire, intact wreck are rare. Some wrecks are in much better condition than others, and visibility in Lake Erie ranges wildly from great to dismal.
On days after storms, which stir up algae and silt, divers may not see much more than the boat and one's fellow divers when they first jump into the water.
"If you've got 10-foot visibility, all you see is the line descending into the darkness below," says Ericsson. On days like that, a small part of the wreck will appear at the bottom of the anchor line, as though emerging from a fog. "You follow the line down, and the next thing you know, you're at the wreck, before you realize it."
"Because of the lower visibility, and because of the cold water, Great Lakes wreck divers are a hardier breed," says Dave Soule as he dries off from his trip to the Craftsman. "If you can dive the Great Lakes, you can probably go anyplace in the world and dive."
Veteran divers used to warm, clear Caribbean waters can find Lake Erie a frightening experience.
Vitas Kijauskas of Discovery Dive Charters and Tours, which runs frequent trips to wrecks out of Wildwood State Park in Cleveland, says he won't let warm-water divers go into the lake without him. He once took two warm-water veterans down 70 feet toward a wreck and noticed one freaking out.
"He was on a mad dash back to the surface," Kijauskas recalls. "So I stopped him and brought him back down a couple feet." Kijauskas signaled the diver to calm down, and he did -- but the man still called off the dive.
Actually, Lake Erie's waters are clearer than they used to be. Divers near the shore used to count on not being able to see more than three to five feet in front of their faces. Now, on a good day off Cleveland, it's common to have 12 to 15 feet of visibility, or even 25 feet. That's due in part to wastewater treatment plants and farms allowing less phosphorus into the lake. Phosphorus, an ingredient in human waste and many fertilizers, fuels the growth of algae.
But the biggest change in the lake's clarity came after oceangoing ships accidentally brought zebra mussels into the Great Lakes in the late 1980s. The tiny striped-shelled creatures eat just about everything, including algae and animal plankton. They even take in silt and excrete it in little mucusy pellets. One zebra mussel, only slightly larger than a thumbnail, can filter one to two liters of water in a day -- and there are literally millions on one square mile of lake bottom.
Scientists worry that zebra mussels are disrupting the food chain in Lake Erie, starving fish by gobbling up plankton. But to divers, the zebra mussel is a friend as well as a pest. Divers often find wrecks covered with inches-thick layers of mussels, which obscure many of the ships' features. But because the mussels have filtered the water, wreck-lovers can see some ships much more clearly.
"I live in Bay Village, on the lake," says longtime diver Jerry Garver. "I've lived there 30 years. In the last five years, I can see the bottom. I never saw it before."
Hooked on the Feeling
Ice and boat traffic have torn up many of the wrecks in shallow water near Cleveland -- while other wrecks, in deeper water, have survived decades on the lake bottom remarkably intact. "It [can] look like a junkyard on the bottom," says Ericsson. "If you're lucky, it looks like a ship."
Discovery Dive Charters takes customers to a few dozen shipwrecks within an easy boat ride of Cleveland. Kijauskas names four that he considers Cleveland's premier wrecks. All of them sank within a few miles of each other along the shipping routes northwest of the city. There's the Dundee, a 220-foot schooner that sank in 1900. The Admiral, a 93-foot steel tug, went down in a storm in 1942. The Two Fannies, a three-masted sailing ship, sprang a leak and sank in 1890. And the Sand Merchant, a 300-foot wreck from 1936, lies upside down, 45 feet from the surface. Though the Two Fannies' decking has collapsed and the Dundee's stern has broken off, all four are intact enough that they're easily recognizable.
Experienced divers sometimes explore the insides of intact wrecks, with lines connecting to their boat's anchor so they can get out if they stir up silt and have trouble seeing.
But entering wrecks can be dangerous, as Ericsson discovered about 20 years ago inside the Admiral.
"I was in a very narrow corridor, about shoulder-to-shoulder wide, and apparently there were these little hooks that normally would hold a shovel, fire ax, whatever. And my webbing from my tank became entangled and I couldn't free myself. I was stuck in this pitch-black little corridor. I couldn't go forward and couldn't go back."
But his dive training had taught him never to panic underwater. "You just stop momentarily and think," he says. "I just released my tank, took it off, backed off, freed the tank, took it out with me to the top of the wreck, and put it back on.
"And the bad thing about this whole thing was, I did the very same thing the following week. I got stuck the same way, in the same place. You would think I'd learn."
Cleveland area divers often start with local shipwrecks and graduate to the wrecks in the deeper, eastern part of Lake Erie. There, the wrecks are more likely to be preserved, untouched by surface ice. Often, far below the surface, divers pass a "thermal cline" where the temperature suddenly drops -- and the visibility opens up, since the water is too cold for algae to survive. For the first time, divers can see an entire shipwreck in Lake Erie all at once, as if they were diving in the Caribbean, whose salt water is hostile to algae.
But when divers visit shallower, more destroyed wrecks, they have to use their imaginations to fill in what's missing.
Annette Soule says she was easily confused when she started exploring wrecks with her husband five years ago. "I didn't know enough about ships to know what I was looking at," she says. "Sometimes they would be really blown apart. I'd think, "It looks like a pile of boards.'"
But toward the end of her first season of diving, a friend showed her a sketch of a boat they were about to dive on. "That made a world of difference for me," she says. "I enjoyed the dive so much more, and it became more challenging to see, "Oh, well, this has this, this, and this.' It opened up a whole new world for me."
Now, the Soules' basement, which they call their "wreck room," is filled with books about Great Lakes wrecks and videos of underwater expeditions to ships. Annette has compiled several notebooks full of wreck locations, sketches of wrecks, old photos, and newspaper articles.
Her scrapbook includes a section dedicated to the Success, a sailing ship built in India in 1840 that caught fire and sank near Port Clinton in 1946. It was used as a floating prison off the coast of Australia in the 1850s and 1860s, and its later owners exhibited it in several countries, hyping and exaggerating the inhumane conditions its prisoners endured.
Soule gets a special thrill from diving on the remains of the Success. "There's hardly anything there to see now, but the history of it is so amazing," she says.
Ask scuba divers why they love shipwrecks, and they'll likely tell you they're fascinated with the history they find underwater. They read up on wrecks before they dive them, and they recount, in slightly spellbound voices, the stories of long-ago maritime disasters.
There's the story of the Morning Star's collision with the Courtland in the middle of the night in 1868. The Courtland's mate noticed the lights of the Morning Star -- a Detroit-to-Cleveland passenger ferry -- not far from his boat. He also noticed that a green lantern on his ship's starboard side was growing dim, so he took the lantern down to clean it -- removing the warning light just as the Morning Star came close. The collision tore holes in both ships, and part of the Courtland was cut apart in one of the Morning Star's paddlewheels. Books that describe the disaster say 33 to 45 people died when the boats sank; the Morning Star's sister ship discovered the wreckage and rescued more than 60 survivors.
Divers especially like to tell the story of Black Friday -- October 20, 1916 -- when a massive storm on Lake Erie sank four ships, killing 55. Everybody on one of the ships died, everyone on a second ship was saved by passing freighters, and on the other two ships, in some strange quirk of fate, everyone died except the captains. Today, divers have found and identified three of the four Black Friday wrecks.
As anyone who's hummed the mournful ballad "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" or had their tears jerked by the movie Titanic can tell you, loss of life makes a shipwreck story more dramatic.
Knowing that people died on a wreck creates "some of the intrigue of going on a boat" as well as "a sense of eeriness," says Steve Bowles of Buckeye Diving School.
It's rare for divers to actually encounter the remains of any crew members. After a ship sinks, the sailors' bodies are more likely to wash up on shore. But some divers have seen the bones of sailors who were trapped inside their ships. There have even been some rare instances of desecration. "I know there [are] divers that have skulls in their houses from these shipwrecks," says Kijauskas.
The thought of disturbing crews' remains troubles most divers, who talk about having respect and reverence for the dead.
"When we first started diving [the Admiral], the bones of the crew were still on board. It was kind of a weird experience," says Jerry Garver, who's been diving in Lake Erie since 1966. When local newspapers wrote about the divers' visits to the ship, families of the crew began complaining, Garver says -- so he and his friends set up a memorial service with the help of the Coast Guard and buried the remains in the mud next to the ship.
"It's very eerie, looking [back] at it," he says. "Most of us, we're not body divers. Some people glory in that. We did not. We respected that it was really a tomb."
Booty and Beasts
Wherever there are shipwrecks, people's thoughts turn to treasure-hunting. But, where Lake Erie is concerned, there are more treasure stories than actual treasure.
Valuable cargoes were usually salvaged soon after a ship went down. Even in the mid-1800s, people dove in Lake Erie, using primitive technology such as old-style metal hard hats. Divers recovered a safe from a ship called the Atlantic as early as the 1860s.
"There were only two treasures that were ever in Lake Erie. One is immigrant money," Michael Wachter says. In the 1800s, immigrants coming to America sewed gold coins into their clothes, knowing that gold was a universal currency. Salvagers used to search for sunken passenger ferries in hopes of finding the coins.
"The other treasure in Lake Erie is copper," says Wachter. "The William Stevens is, to this day, a true treasure wreck. It was salvaged twice, but the salvage technology at the time didn't get [all the] copper off it.
"She is being dove today," Wachter says -- and there are still fairly sizable copper ingots on the ship, which lies north of Conneaut. But the remaining copper is buried under the Stevens's other cargo: flaxseed, which clogs scuba divers' regulators. No one has yet been able to get under the flaxseed and get to the last of the copper there.
Lake Erie has frustrated more treasure hunters than it's rewarded. One rumor held that the Sand Merchant carried a valuable cargo when it sank -- but when it was found, it turned out the cargo was just sand, valuable to companies mixing concrete, but not to salvagers.
Wreck-hunter Garry Kozak spent nine years looking for the Dean Richmond, a 238-foot wood steamer that sank in 1893 off Erie, Pennsylvania. He searched Lake Erie with a sophisticated side-scan sonar system, which maps out pictures of the lake bottom within about 600 feet of a ship, hoping to salvage the zinc ingots and lead in the Richmond's cargo. Rumors had spread that the Richmond also carried copper, which would have been "the icing on the cake," Kozak says.
Kozak discovered 28 new shipwrecks during his search, but when he found a wreck that he knew wasn't the Richmond, he kept going -- long after it became obvious that his search was unlikely to turn a profit. "It became an obsession more than anything," he says. "I did not want to give up and say I could not do it."
Kozak finally discovered the Richmond in 1983, but found no copper and only a fraction of the amount of zinc and lead he'd hoped to find. Today, he works for a side-scan sonar manufacturer in New Hampshire, and he still searches for new wrecks in Lake Erie, just for the thrill of the hunt.
Georgeann and Michael Wachter had to sort out fact from a lot of fiction when writing their books on the lake's wrecks. As they end their trip and dock in Lorain, they and the Soules trade stories about the real-life oddities at the bottom of the lake. There are car wrecks (stolen cars driven off piers at Cleveland's Gordon and Edgewater parks), plane wrecks (small aircraft that have crashed into the lake) and train wrecks (train ferries that went down with train cars on them). There's even a small prototype submarine from the 1860s, lost in the exploration of the Atlantic and never found.
Sometimes, though, the tall tales are too good not to retell. Divers have even heard the legend of a Loch Ness-esque Lake Erie Monster, or "Lem" for short.
"There are commercial fishermen who swear they've seen Lem," says Michael Wachter. Dave Soule suggests the stories are the result of too much red wine.
Georgeann Wachter recounts a story from an 1890 newspaper, where the entire crew of a schooner also claimed they saw Lem. "They swear that they were out, it was a calm day, and suddenly they came upon this 40-foot-long thing, it was floating on the surface, and then it disappeared from sight," she says.
"It was probably a well-fed sturgeon," Michael adds.
Vitas Kijauskas saw his first shipwreck when he was 12 years old. His family farmed in North Madison, 40 miles east of Cleveland, and he'd go snorkeling with his father, pulling cannonballs and a sword off a wreck close to the shore. He still has the sword 30 years later, and a historian has told him that it probably dates from around the Civil War. But it's the only wreck artifact he owns.
"When I was a kid and finding these shipwrecks, what I thought about was treasure. But later, as I started diving these shipwrecks, [my interest] was historical," he says. "When I take people down there, it's like a museum. When people start pulling stuff off these shipwrecks, that museum gets worse and worse."
His change of heart parallels a changing ethic in shipwreck diving. Thirty years ago, nearly everyone who dove on sunken ships brought back artifacts: the ships' bells, wheels, whistles, and portholes. But in 1991, Ohio made it illegal to take any part of a wreck without a permit. Now, divers talk instead about leaving shipwrecks intact for others to see.
The new law came at about the same time that historians and archaeologists began studying shipwrecks as a window on Great Lakes history. An Ohio State professor emeritus teaches a class in shipwreck archaeology; three years ago, about two dozen students donned scuba or snorkel gear and sketched and measured the Adventure, a wreck in shallow water just off Kelley's Island, documenting every piece of the ship's remains. On June 24 in Vermilion, the Great Lakes Historical Society is opening a Lake Erie Shipwreck Research Center, which hosts a computerized database of shipwreck locations and ship information.
Today, artifacts are less likely to disappear from wrecks. As for things people took off wrecks when it was legal, reactions differ.
"Historians came over to some of our meetings, and they brought all this stuff they've taken off shipwrecks," Kijauskas says. "I go, "Man, remember, we want to let people know they're not supposed to take any of this stuff!' We had them stress, It's illegal now."
Others are less nervous. The store at Bedford's Buckeye Diving School is full of artifacts that owner Paul Reynolds pulled from Lake Erie when it was legal: an old wooden beam that held a ship's rigging and now has scuba hoses and air regulators hanging from it, an anchor, and a thin cannon, slightly larger than a man's arm, whose markings appear to date it from the French and Indian War, when British Colonel John Bradstreet lost half of the boats in his naval expedition off what is now Rocky River.
Reynolds says he doesn't worry about encouraging would-be souvenir hunters. "There's laws. People know what the laws are," he says. "It's like museums displaying stuff. If museums display shipwreck articles, is that going to make [people] take stuff? I don't think so."
Bob Ericsson talks openly about looking for brass artifacts on the Admiral 20 years ago. Back then, "whatever you found you took," he says. "Anything that could be removed was removed.
"A lot of history was lost," he admits. But, he adds, "at that time there was no interest in the archaeological community in wrecks. That came about later.
"I think that most divers would have been more than willing to work with the archaeological community on developing the history of the wrecks. In fact, we've done some of that work.
"I believe history as a time capsule should be preserved, should have been preserved. But at that time, there was no thought that anyone else would visit those wrecks except us."
Secrets of the Deep
After visiting the Prince, the boat carrying the divers from Port Clinton rounds Kelley's Island and heads for Middle Island. Steve Sheridan, a charter boat captain who often partners with the New Wave Dive Shop on wreck excursions, steers his ship, the Scuba Recovery, toward Middle Island's shore, where dozens of cormorants and seagulls coast from tree to tree.
"Are we in Canadian waters?" he's asked.
"Yeah, pretty close," he says.
Sheridan and his boating buddies recently found a small, undocumented wreck off the island, and he seems nervous about revealing too much about its location. It's a common instinct among wreck hunters, who used to be even more secretive.
"Five years ago, nobody would tell you anything," says Michael Wachter. "When we published our first book, Erie Wrecks, we were chastised pretty roundly around the lakes for giving away numbers."
Before the Wachters and Canadian author Cris Kohl printed wreck locations in their books, "getting coordinates was like pulling teeth," remembers Steve Bowles. Divers kept coordinates "very private," and many had an attitude of "that's my wreck," Bowles says. Now, with accurate coordinates available, "It's kind of like, "Hey, I can go diving too.' It's becoming more common, much easier."
When taking items off wrecks was legal and common, divers who found a wreck were afraid someone else would get the good stuff before they did. Today, discoverers of a new ship still fear someone will strip their favorite exploration spot.
Annette Soule, who's networked with other divers to compile her thick books of shipwreck information, also protects her knowledge.
"I had a new person that joined our club and came to a meeting and saw this book and wanted to borrow it," she says. "And you know how many years it took me to put that book together? And I said, "I'm sorry, I really don't loan it out to anybody.' I don't remember if he ever came to another meeting after that."
Even today, with the promise of treasure gone, hardcore enthusiasts ply the depths of Lake Erie with side-scan sonar equipment, hoping to be the first one to discover a major wreck. With the Dean Richmond and its zinc ingots long-found, the new Holy Grail of Lake Erie wreck-hunters is a 338-foot train-car ferry named the Marquette & Bessemer No. 2, which left Conneaut and sank while carrying 30 freight-train cars in 1909.
"It's the biggest secret the lake hasn't given up yet," says Michael Wachter. "A lot of people are looking for it. Every once in a while, you hear rumors it's been found . . . The guy who finds it is going to keep it quiet for a while, unless he's writing, publishing, or being funded by a government agency."
Two wreck-hunters work out of Cleveland, says Wachter, but they keep their searches secret. Their side-scan sonars cost tens of thousands of dollars -- money they've invested simply so that they can be the first to see a shipwreck.
That may seem peculiarly obsessive, but divers understand.
"There is nothing in the world quite like finding a virgin shipwreck before anyone else has touched it," says Wachter.
"You spend years looking for one that no one has ever dove on, and when you finally discover it and make that first descent on it, you go down the line and see items on it that normally aren't there" -- things normally taken as souvenirs, such as the wheel and the capstan. "When you come down on a wreck and the wheel is still standing there, in place, like it's waiting for the helmsman to bring the ship about again . . . you really have taken the time machine back and are literally there.
"The only things missing are the crew walking the decks."