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Special Report: Diving into the Past, Part 2

Updated: 07/17/2014 10:46 PM
Created: 07/17/2014 3:33 PM WDIO.com
By: Darren Danielson

The famed shipwrecks of Lake Superior are ghostly reminders of our past. In part one of our series, "Diving into the Past," we took you out to the Apostle Islands with a group of scuba divers, passionate about preserving these underwater treasures. In part two, we are going out a bit farther on Lake Superior and diving a bit deeper.    

Most of us think of Lake Superior as a beautiful expanse of water that we enjoy for sailing, boating, and perhaps even swimming on the warmest of summer days.  

But another world lies below the surface of the greatest of the Great Lakes. Underwater videographer Ken Merryman has been recording it for us land lubbers to also enjoy.  

"It's quiet down there," Merryman says. "With scuba tanks you have bubbles, but if you have a rebreather like I do it's very quiet. All you hear is your own breathing and heartbeat. It's silent and you are weightless".

Merryman has been diving the Great Lakes for 48 years. With that much experience, you can bet Merryman has all the right equipment; one special piece of equipment is his diving camera.

It captures breathtaking images.  His video of the wrecks take us back to a time when these early vessels criss-crossed the Great Lakes carrying everything a growing nation was hungry for such as lumber, coal, and grain.

But keeping up with that demand took great risk, especially in the waters surrounding Isle Royale, about 35 miles out from Grand Portage.

This is where the Madeira lies.  

She is just one casualty of a brutal storm that wrecked 20 ships in November 1905. The Madeira was under tow of a steamer but the captain feared for the lives of his crew and he cut the Madeira loose. The first mate went down with the ship.

There were no roads along the North Shore in those days so ships carried both cargo and passengers, which makes the story of the Kamloops so tragic. The 250-foot steamer was pushing late into the season in December of 1927, carrying heavy machinery for making paper and passengers.

"That's one thing about when you dive these shipwrecks," Merryman says. "Part of it is the stories, the stories of sacrifice of heroism or survival."

The Kamloops disappeared without a trace and all 22 women and men on board were lost.  

"And so as you dive these wrecks all of these stories kind of come to life," Merryman says.

Another historic wreck is the Chester A. Congdon, named after the entrepreneur who built Duluth's Glensheen Mansion. She is a 532-foot steamer that crashed against the rocks near the northeast point of Isle Royale in 1918.  

She broke in two, spilling her full load of grain into the lake. That tragedy made the Congdon the first $1 million shipping loss in Lake Superior history.

"If there's one group that appreciates this maritime history, it's scuba divers that dive these wrecks," Merryman says. "Because it's all real to them, they can touch it and feel it."

And in some cases repair it.

Merryman is a member of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Preservation Society. It's a group of divers who help care for these historic wrecks.

"We look at shipwrecks as a resource. Whenever you use a resource you tend to do a little damage. So that was part of what was behind our Great Lakes Shipwreck Preservation Society, it's a way we can offset some of the minor damage through normal use that happens to shipwrecks."

Merryman has even helped get several ships listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The SS America is one of them.  

"We've actually gone down with tools and rebuilt rooms and we reassembled the crews quarters and did a bunch of stabilization."

Long before cell phones or the internet, the SS America was a communications link between Duluth and Thunder Bay and folks on Isle Royale.  She would bring news and supplies in, and the fish catch out.  

But on June 7th, 1928 the America fell victim to the jagged rocks on the southwest end of Isle Royale. 

Some of these wrecks hold tales of courage.  

Up at the northeast point of Isle Royale, the Monarch lies with her treasure trove of items. She is also on the National Register now. In November 1906, she left Two Harbors in a blinding snowstorm but crashed at full speed into the palisades on Blake Point. In raging seas, in that November storm, a crewman somehow got a rope to shore and all but one crew member survived.

"Mother nature always has the last say," says Merryman.

Merryman's camera is a bit like a time machine.  A device that takes us back in time to strange and intriguing places.   

But despite all his great footage, Merryman still reminisces over his first dives as if they were yesterday.  

"I can remember when we dove the Mather for the first time. You can imagine a ship 300 foot long made of wood. We went in through the gangway into the engine room and the glass was still there in the room behind the engine. The cabins were still intact on the sides and it was like, holy mackerel this is unbelievable!"

Merryman's passion for these underwater museums is infectious.  It is because of his commitment and his camera that you and I can also drift away, at least in our imagination - diving into the past.

"You can go inside and you swim through the insides of the cargo holds and look and never touch anything and just glide through and back out.  You're floating around and it's kinda like being able to fly!"

With our busy lives, we may not think about the rich history of the Great Lakes very often, but it's part of what makes us who we are. So the next time you look out over these waters remember the past is not really gone - much of it still right here, at the bottom of Lake Superior.

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