Sunday, June 26, 2011

Death ship: New Bay City Exhibit Centers On Pewabic's Troubled Past

Capt. Ed Morris says the tale of the Pewabic is one of the most interesting nautical disasters around. Called the “death ship” for the number of lives lost when she went down and the divers lost trying to salvage her, the Pewabic sank Aug. 9, 1865, in Lake Huron, just past Thunder Bay. “The ship was so full of ingots (metal units), it was like an anchor itself once it filled with water,” says Morris, who owns a collection of artifacts from the shipwreck. His dozen pieces are on display at the Historical Museum of Bay County through April 2013. The Pewabic and her sister ship, the Meteor, were traveling in close proximity in order to pass messages and packages, a common shipping practice of the day, when the Pewabic suddenly cut across the Meteor’s bow, according to the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary website. It was a mishap brought on by miscommunication, Morris said. “When you want the ship to go starboard, you call for the wheel to be turned for port,” he said. “The first mate, who was in the pilot house (of the Pewabic), called for a hard starboard.
Scale model of the Pewabic, which sank in Thunder Bay near Alpena in 1865.
They turned the exact opposite of what he wanted to do. They swerved sideways and they rammed (the Meteor).” The Pewabic sank quickly, with the loss of some 125 lives. Fifty passengers were rescued by the undamaged Meteor. Now resting in 180 feet of water off Alpena, the Pewabic is part of the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary and Underwater Preserve, the only federal preserve in the state. Morris calls her the jewel of the preserve. Salvage operations began during World War I. “It became important to find the treasure during World War I,” said Corrine Bloomfield, curator of exhibits at the museum. The Pewabic’s treasure was Keweenaw Peninsula copper, a precious commodity during wartime. Divers went looking, in spite of the great depth at which the ship rested. Many never returned. A group of seven went down in a diving bell to take a look at the wreckage. All seven were killed when one of the bell’s windows broke.
Corrine Bloomfield, of the Bay County Historical Society, holds a copper ingot recovered from the wreck of the Pewabic resting on the bottom of Thunder Bay near Alpena.
“It’s part of the mystique of the Pewabic,” Morris said. But divers continued to try to explore the Pewabic, right through the early 1980s, when federal laws went into effect banning salvage operations from shipwrecks. Among Morris’ pieces are two rare objects — a port hole from the ship and a block (pulley). The block is the rarest of all because of the lettering on it. “It says ‘prop. Pewabic,’ ” Morris said. “It is very unusual to see the name of the boat on it.” Other pieces in the collection are a lady’s hat and a wine bottle, as well as some of the copper the Pewabic carried. Morris’ artifacts were acquired from a salvager with Bush Salvage Co., a Saginaw company that explored the ship in the 1970s. Also taking a turn at salvage was the Meagher Brothers of Bay City, giving the ship one more local connection. “It’s important to bring that part of the story out,” Bloomfield said.

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