SS Superior City

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Superior City - after launching. First vessel launched from the Lorain shipyard of the Cleveland Ship Building Co.
Name: Superior City
Owner: American Steamship Company 1898 - 1901; Pittsburg Steamship Company 1901 - 1920
Port of registry: Cleveland, Ohio  United States
Builder: Cleveland Shipbuilding Company, Lorain, OH
Completed: 1898
Fate: Sank in Whitefish Bay 20 August 1920 after colliding with Willis L. King
Notes: United States Registry # 116820
General characteristics
Class and type: Bulk freighter, propeller
Length: 429 ft (131 m)
Beam: 50 ft (15 m)
Height: 25 ft (7.6 m)
Propulsion: Propeller, 1900 hp engine
Crew: 33

The Superior City was considered a pioneer vessel at her launching in 1898. She was the largest vessel ever built on freshwater at that time. She sailed the Great Lakes for twenty-two years until she sank after a collision in 1920 with the steamer Willis L. King in Whitefish Bay of Lake Superior that resulted in the loss of 29 lives. Controversy was immediate over the collision. It was subsequently ruled that the captains of both ships failed to follow the “rules-of-the-road”. Controversy started again in 1988 over photographing and videos of the skeletons of the Superior City crew and continued as late as 1996 over artifacts removed from her wreck. She is now a protected shipwreck in the Whitefish Point Underwater Preserve.


The Superior City launched 13 April 1898 in the yards of the Cleveland Ship Building Company (later named the American Ship Building Company) at Lorain, Ohio.[1] The Superior City was a pioneer vessel representing the steady progression of bigger, longer, and stronger craft from the days of ships powered by sails.[2] At her launching, she was the largest vessel ever built on freshwater. The whole town of Lorain crowded the river front to watch her launch.[1]

On April 26, 1909, Dr. Griffin, the local health officer at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan received reports that boats tied up at the Soo Locks had been quarantined and a couple of the lockmen said that they heard that the Superior City had displayed a smallpox sign for a few hours on the previous night. Dr. Griffin boarded the Superior City and had a heated conference in which everyone denied any knowledge of a smallpox sign. Dr. Griffin issued a warning that any misuse of a contagious disease sign would be immediately reported to the Michigan Secretary of State. Shipwreck historian Wes Oleszewski reported, "In the ensuing days, there were far fewer uninvited guests aboard any of the boats tied up at the Soo Locks, especially the Superior City." [3]

The Superior City sailed the lakes for twenty-two years before she came to an untimely end in the worst collision ever occurring on Lake Superior.[1][4]


At 9:10 PM on 20 August 1920, the steamers Superior City and Willis L. King collided in Whitefish Bay on Lake Superior. The Superior City was downbound and heavy with 7600 tons of iron ore loaded at Two Harbors, Minnesota. The steamer Willis L. King was upbound and light after unloading ore at Ashtabula, Ohio. Maritime historian Boyer wrote that the Superior City was, "[R]ammed on her port side, aft of midships … [causing] … a tremendous explosion when the terrible inrushing wall of cold water burst her aft bulkheads and hit the boilers. The vessel’s stern was literally blown off…. [and she] was nearly halved in the collision." [5] Immediately following the collision, the crew was struggling to lower the lifeboats that were located over the boilers and this concentrated them precisely over the explosion, resulting in the loss of life of most of the crew.[6]

Casualties and survivors

The Superior City sank rapidly with the loss of lives of 28 men and one woman, the worst loss of life in the history of the Pittsburg Steamship Company. Of the four survivors, Captain Sawyer, second mate G.G. Lehnt, and watchman Peter Jacobsen were forward and jumped for their lives. Captain Sawyer was found clinging to a life preserver that he never had time to put on. Second mate Lehnt was found clinging to the bottom of a capsized lifeboat. Watchman Jacobson fought his way back to the surface after being dragged down with the ship and swam for about 20 minutes until the King’s lifeboat picked him up. Boatswain Walter Richter was sleeping in his bunk wearing only long underwear when alarm bells sounded. When he raced to the deck, the explosion blew him overboard, blowing off his underwear. The steamer J.J. Turner picked him up naked and clinging to a hatch cover that he rode as a raft.[5][6]


The vessels sighted each other about ten minutes before the collision and exchanged steam whistle signals. Captain Sawyer of the Superior City and Captain Nelson of the Willis L. King offered conflicting statements about the weather and the whistle signals prior to the collision. Captain Sawyer said that the weather was clear at the time of the accident while Captain Nelson said that the night had been foggy and hazy. Captain Sawyer maintained that the two vessels exchanged one blast signals indicating the conventional port-to-port passing signal. Captain Nelson asserted that the vessels exchanged two blast signals for a starboard-to-starboard passing. At the time impact, the Superior City was swinging across the King’s bow while Captain Nelson swung his bow hard aport and rang the telegraph to stop and then full astern. The estimated speed at the time of impact was 12 miles (19 km) per hour for the King, and 10.5 miles (16.9 km) per hour for the Superior City.[5] The accident was investigated by U.S. Steamboat Inspectors Gooding and Hanson of Marquette, Michigan.[6] After their initial statements, both captains communicated only in depositions to the proctors-in-admiralty representatives of the owners of the vessels. Officers and crew of the nearbly J.J. Turner and the Midvale witnessed the collision and heard the exhange of passing signals. It was determined that although very early in the night there had been haze and some fog, at the time of the collision the night was crystal clear with unlimited visibility.[5] When the Willis L. King made to the Superior Shipbuilding Company’s drydock for repairs of a twisted, broken stern, seventeen shell plates and frames destroyed, interior forward decks buckled, and numerous angles and stringers that required replacement, Captain Nelson ordered that no member of the crew was to discuss the accident with anyone but representatives of the vessel’s owner or agents.[5]


After many months of investigation and litigation, United States District Court, the Western District of Wisconsin Judge C. Z. Luce ruled that both masters were guilty of failing to follow the “Rules of the Road” regulations that if there is doubt about the course or intention of the other, the pilot is required give the danger signal and slow to a speed barely sufficient for passageway and/or stop and reverse course.[5] After more haggling by underwriters and proctors, the Superior City was valued at $300,000 and her tonnage was valued at $42,922.95. The King’s damage was $42,520. The loss-of-life claims were not paid until late in 1923. The lawyers of victim’s estates had little muscle against the legal maneuverings of the admiralty proctors and they settled for $5000 to the families of deckhands and porters, $3,700 for the wife of the second engineer, $11,205 for the second engineer, and $25,000 for the chief engineer.[5]

Wreck controversy

The wreck of the Superior City was initially discovered in 1972 by diver John Steele. The wreck was rediscovered in 1980 by Tom Farnquist and Gary Shumbarger of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society who extensively photographed the wreck.[7] The Shipwreck Society produced a video in 1988 about the wreck of the Superior City called "Graveyard of the Great Lakes" that showed extensive footage of skeletons of the crew and the removal of a wedding ring from a skeleton. The Shipwreck Society still claims accolades for "Graveyard of the Great Lakes" video but they no longer sell it to the public.[8]

The Evening News reported a Michigan Department of Natural Resources raid on the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum and its offices that found evidence of 150 artifacts illegally removed from the state-claimed bottomlands. Artifacts from the Superior City and other shipwrecks are on display at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum as a loan from the state following a 1993 settlement agreement with the Michigan Department of State and Department of Natural Resources.[9][10][11]

The controversy surrounding artifacts from the Superior City continued in 1996 over the ownership of her telegraph. The telegraph was on loan to the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum. When the owner’s representative, Great Lakes shipwreck diver Steve Harrington, removed the telegraph from the museum, the museum’s director, Tom Farnquist, notified the Michigan State Police who held the telegraph until ownership was determined. Both men admitted that the controversy really stemmed from proposed legislation over the photography of dead bodies in Michigan waters that included the wrecks of the Superior City and the SS Edmund Fitzgerald.[12]

For a number of years the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society used a wedding ring from a skeleton on the Superior City to promote its museum. In a 2000 interview Farnquist likened the identity of the skeleton and the owner of the wedding ring to a shipwreck mystery that may never be solved. The ring and other artifacts from the Superior City are still on display in the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum.[13]

Wreck diving

Scuba diving to the Superior City wreck requires advanced technical diving skills as it is among the most dangerous and difficult dives among the many wrecks in Whitefish Bay. Twenty year old Scott Michael Snow lost his life while exploring the Superior City wreck in 2001. His body was retrieved from the wreck in 230 feet of water by the robotic arm of a remote vehicle.[14]

The wreck of the Superior City lies in 190 feet (58 m) to 270 feet (82 m) of water in Whitefish Bay of Lake Superior at 46°43.51′N 84°52.37′W / 46.72517°N 84.87283°W / 46.72517; -84.87283.[15] The Superior City wreck is protected for future generations by the Whitefish Point Underwater Preserve as part of an underwater museum.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Bowen, Dana Thomas, (1940, 1975,. Lore of the Great Lakes, pp. 223, 226 – 227., Freshwater Press, Cleveland, Ohio, USA. LCCN 40-33309.
  2. Havighurst, Walter, (1942, 1975). The Longs Ships Passing: The story of the Great Lakes, p. 221. MacMillan Publishing, Inc., New York, New York, USA. ISBN 0-02-549100-8.
  3. Oleszewsik, Wes, (1993). Ice Water Museum, pp. 21 -22, Avery Color Studios, Marquette, Michigan, USA. ISBN 932212-78-6.
  4. Stonehouse, Frederick (1973). The Great Wrecks of the Great lake: A directory of the shipwrecks of Lake Superior, p. 110. The Book Concern, Printers, Hancock, Michigan, USA. LCCN 73-75623.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 5.6 Boyer, Dwight (1977). Ships and Men of the Great Lakes, pp. 103 – 104. Freshwater Press, Inc., Cleveland, Ohio, USA. ISBN 0-912514-51-5.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Wolff, Julius F. (1979). The Shipwrecks of Lake Superior, p. 1920. Lake Superior Marine Museum Association, Inc., Duluth, Minnesota, USA. ISBN 0932212-18-8.
  7. Stonehouse, Frederick (1985, 1998). Lake Superior's Shipwreck Coast: Maritime accidents from Whitefish Bay to Grand Marais, Michigan, p. 18, Avery Color Studios, Gwinn, Michigan, USA. ISBN 0-9332212-43-3.
  8. "Shipwreck Society Awards". Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society. Retrieved 18 January 2009. 
  9. Storey, Jack, (4 December 1992). “Shipwreck artifact dispute simmers”. Evening News, p. A1.
  10. Harrington, Steve (1990, 1998). Divers Guide to Michigan, p.320, Maritime Press & Great Lakes Diving Council, Inc., St. Ignace, Michigan, U.S.A. ISBN 0-9624629-8-5.
  11. "Michigan DNR 1992 Affidavit and Search Warrant and Investigation Report of GLSHS". Whitefish Point Preservation Society. Retrieved 17 February 2010. 
  12. Brand, Scott, (11 September 1996). “Artifact removal raises debate”. Evening News, pp. 1, 2.
  13. Loranger Gaska, Carrie (11 November 2000). "Recovering Mysteries of the Great Lakes". American Profile. Retrieved 20 December 2008. 
  14. Elmira (AP), (27 June 2001). “Diver surfaced too quickly from shipwreck, authorities say”. Evening News, p. 3.
  15. "Michigan Preserve". Michigan Underwater Preserves Council. Retrieved 11 January 2009. 

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