120-year-old shipwreck found in Lake Erie

Historical photo of the Margaret Olwill Photo courtesy of Historical Collections of the Great Lakes, Bowling Green State University

In 1899, during a powerful storm, the steam barge Margaret Olwill disappeared into Lake Erie. It was a tragedy that killed at least eight people, including the captain and his wife and son, and the remains of the ship were never found — until now.

Robert Ruetschle is a shipwreck hunter, and he’s spent the past thirty years trying to find the missing Olwill. He thought he’d discovered the wreckage way back in 1989, but was too busy with other projects to confirm it. He marked the spot and didn’t return for several years. When he did, it turned out what he’d found wasn’t the ship at all, but a pile of rocks and a sunken tree.

Instead of giving up, Ruetschle became even more determined to find the Olwill. “It was a major disaster back in 1899 when it sank,” he told the Toledo Blade. He thought that since its disappearance had been fairly extensively recorded, he had a fair shot at finding it. So he went back to the records of the event and began trying to figure out its most likely location, searching sixty square miles of Lake Erie. Then, last summer, along with the wreckage of two other ships, he found it.

Sonar scan of the Margaret Olwill
This sonar image shows the remains of the ship as they were found last summer. [Credit: Cleveland Underwater Explorers]
“It’s sort of like climbing Mount Everest for the first time,” Ruetschle told the

CBC. “Once you find it, it’s just fantastic.”

Ruetschle, a resident of Ohio, is a member of the Cleveland Underwater Explorers (CLUE), a group of divers, historians, and archaeologists dedicated to finding shipwrecks in the great lakes. After he found the Olwill, he and another CLUE member, David VanZandt, did a dive to confirm the ship’s identity. Later, divers found the ship’s steam-powered engine, which matched descriptions of the Olwill’s, making the find a sure thing.

“Sometime in the next several years we’ll do a detailed archaeological workup,” Ruetschle told the Toledo Blade.

Some of the historical records of the Olwill’s sinking came from survivors. Four people were rescued from the shipwreck after clinging to floating debris. A fifth man drowned in view of the rescue vessel, as he was too weak to hold onto the rope thrown for him. The ship itself sank when, during a storm, it attempted to turn around and was rolled over by a wave.

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