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Archaeology and historical record solve a Portage Lake mystery

Editor’s note: This is Part Three of a series of the identification of the schooner barge “Mediator,” which sank in the Keweenaw Waterway in approximately 1900. Part One appeared in the Jan. 29 edition of the DMG.

Once Brendon Baillod and Randy Beebe had surveyed, photographed and documented the sunken vessel in the Keweenaw Waterway near the Michigan Technological University power plant, responses from local divers and residents as to the identity of the hulk simply did not line up with existing data and records Baillod possessed. He has, he said, one of the largest private collections of antiquarian Great Lakes books and ephemera in existence and is active in searching for and documenting historic Great Lakes shipwrecks.

“I have, in my personal collection, the full run of US Lifesaving Service Annual Reports in original, as well as every edition of the Annual Lists of US Merchant Vessels, in original, as well as just about every 19th century marine directory ever made,” Baillod told the Gazette via email. “It also includes nearly every leather-bound county history from around the Lakes as well as every book ever written about Great Lakes maritime and early history. I can quickly research nearly any vessel ever on the Lakes. The collection also includes over 500 antiquarian charts and maps, as well as several thousand early Great Lakes vessels photos, most original stereo-views or CDVs. It is the largest private collection of Great Lakes maritime books and ephemera in existence and is very complete concerning the Keweenaw, as I grew up there.”

Baillod began searching through old documents, and in the Annual Report of the US Lifesaving Service for 1898, he found an entry stating that the crew of the Portage Canal Lifesaving Station had gone to the aid of the big steamer Colorado, which had blundered onto Sawtooth Reef off Eagle Harbor during a severe gale on Sept.18, 1898. While on their way to rescue the crew of the Colorado, the lifesaving crew encountered the Mediator, grounded and damaged, about a mile west of the mouth of the Gratiot River, in Keweenaw County. Assured that the crew of that vessel was safe on land, they continued on their way. Baillod’s subsequent historical research disclosed that the hulk near Michigan Tech’s power plant was definitely the Mediator, and also solved the mystery of how it wound up where it sank:

In September 1898, the steamer Kalkaskia left Duluth, Minnesota, for Buffalo, New York, with a deck load of lumber, and also towing three schooner barges, the Aloha, J.H. Mead, and the Mediator. The steamer and her three consorts had run headlong into the storm, and were taking quite a pounding by the time they neared Keweenaw Point.

When the storm parted the towline to the steamer, the barges were cast adrift in the gale, and forced to set sails on their stubby masts, in hope of riding out the storm. Without topsails, and weighted down with massive deck loads of lumber, the barges Mead and Mediator were blown aground where the massive surf pounded them mercilessly.

Over a week later, salvage crews, with the help of the lifesaving service, were able to remove the deck loads from the two barges and they were pulled free. Captain Joseph Croze, of Houghton, towed the barges to his shipyard at the site of the present-day Michigan Tech power plant, where they were surveyed by the insurance underwriters. The Mead was judged to be salvageable, but the Mediator’s keel was broken, and her decks were badly hogged. She was abandoned by the underwriters to Captain Croze, who let her settle to the bottom while he debated what to do with his new acquisition.

He never did find a use for the broken Mediator.

Its final papers were surrendered at the Port of Chicago as a total loss on Oct. 10, 1898. Photos from 1901 clearly show the ship sunk below the surface in the Keweenaw Waterway. Over the ensuing decades, her identity faded into history, and she became a nameless derelict on the bottom of Portage Lake.

The Mediator is now one of the most historic wrecks on the Keweenaw Peninsula, Baillod said.

“Her 1848 hull bed is among the oldest nautical relics on Lake Superior,” he said, “and few vessels of her vintage are to be found as intact as she is.”

The Mediator’s massive remains, he added, provide and excellant example of mid 19th century wooden ship construction.

The wreck is easily accessible to both snorkelers and scuba divers, Baillod stated.

“Her significance and identity are still largely unknown, even to area historians,” he said, “and, like most historic wrecks in the Waterway, she runs the risk of being dredged up and discarded to make way for waterfront development. She is one of nearly a dozen historic vessels lying in the Keweenaw Waterway.

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