A Case of Mistaken Identity: The Lost Schooner Sunny Side

Lost Ship of the Month

Literally hundreds of handcrafted white oak artifacts bearing the inscription “Sunnyside, foundered N. Fox Island, 1883” grace the dens of maritime enthusiasts around the Lakes.  Lamps, tables, clocks, letter openers and pen sets were ostensibly crafted from her timbers beginning around 1967 and only ended with the passage of the Federal Abandoned Shipwreck Act in 1987.  These artifacts were mostly crafted by Bill Garten, a talented furniture maker from Charlevoix who operated the Great Lakes Shipwreck Company.  Garten painstakingly dried the timbers, lacquered them and crafted them into furniture, affixing a brass plate to each, describing the shipwreck from which it came.  Garten had been aware of the wreck high on a long reef off the southeast corner of North Fox Island that people had been calling the Sunnyside since the early 1960s when it began to appear on Great Lakes “treasure maps.”  He began salvaging wood from the wreck in the mid-1960s and continued mining its timbers for nearly a decade before dynamiting the wreck in the early 70s to free up its remaining wood. Nobody ever questioned the identity of the wreck, as it looked like a large schooner, it was strewn with iron ore, and it had a fanciful name…..”Sunnyside.”

 The Sunny Side (actually spelled at two words in contemporary sources) was an iconic sailing ship for her time.  She was built in 1862, during the Civil War, at a time when the Milwaukee grain market was the largest in the world.  Increasingly large vessels brought in larger profits for their owners and the Sunny Side was the largest.  At 164 feet in length and 36 feet in beam, she was the longest sailing vessel on the Lakes at the time of her launch.  Unlike the small workaday schooners of her time, she was square rigged as a three-masted barkentine, with lofty yards of billowing canvas, much like the big British clipper ships in the ocean trades.    She was built at Detroit by the yard of Campbell and Owen for investor Henry N. Strong, a Detroit vessel manager and grain forwarder.  On Tuesday, August 26, 1862, she slid down the ways:

 Launch of a Large Sail Vessel – The new bark Sunny Side, built at the shipyard of Campbell and Owen, was launched yesterday.  A large number of persons were present to witness the scene.  Everything passed of successfully.  At a little past three o’clock the stays were removed, and the huge vessel gracefully descended to her future element.  Her builders have cause to be proud of this magnificent craft.  She certainly reflects credit upon them, as well as upon Detroit enterprise.  The Sunny Side will be the largest craft upon the lakes.  Her dimensions are as follows: Length of keel, 164 feet; length overall, 174 feet; breadth of beam 24 feet, 6 inches; depth of hold, 14 feet.  Her capacity is about 32,000 bushels of wheat, and she will draw twelve feet of water when loaded.  She has six extra fames at the ends of the centre-box, and her main and sister keelsons are five feet wide and sixteen inches deep, with fastenings of one-eighth inch iron; bilge keelsons seven inches thick, and ceiling and camps six inches, edge-bolted with one inch iron, and through-bolded with seven-eighths iron, two bolts to every foot in width in each frame.  The outside plank is four inches thick, with spike heads all plugged.  All the latest improvements are used to promote safety and facilitate the handling of her, including patent windlass, capstan, steering gear, deck lights, etc.  The rigging and sail-making is from the establishment of John Bloom – Detroit Free Press, August 27, 1862

 The Sunny Side was enrolled at the Detroit Customs House on September 1, 1862 and was rated at 747 gross tons and later given the official number 23388.  By all accounts, she had a rocky career, due in no small part to her size and rig.  Great Lakes barkentines were notoriously hard to manage, requiring frequent forays aloft to manage the yards and handle the complex rigging.  Square rigged vessels were short-lived on the Great Lakes, with most being converted to schooner rig by the close of the 1860s.  While they were fast in following wind, the relatively short runs on the Lakes make them less economical to operate.

On October 1, 1862, only a few months into her career, the Sunny Side lost a crewman overboard in the Straits with another being injured by a flying block.  Before the end of her first season, she was also involved in a collision with an unnamed vessel.  The 1866 season was a hard one for the vessel, as she was involved in several collisions with other vessels, a grain elevator and a bridge.  The accidents continued with strandings and a ruined grain cargo when she struck a rock and was waterlogged in 1868.  1871 saw several more mishaps, including collisions, standings and damaged rigging, with an incident nearly every month.  Frequent trips to the shipyard shortened her seasons and although doubtless profitable, she was sold to new Detroit-based owners in 1872.  Her new owners sent her to the shipyard over the winter of 1873 to be re-rigged as a schooner.  Gone were the elegant square sails on her two front masts and in their place were triangular sails.  The Sunny Side was probably not nearly as fast on her trans-Lake trips, but she easily made up for the loss with fewer mishaps, which indeed proved to be the case.

The Sunny Side continued to have occasional mishaps, but these were far less frequent.  She went ashore in the Straits in May of 1876, was involved in a collision on Lake Erie in May of 1880 and was thoroughly rebuilt after going ashore at Sand Beach on Lake Huron in June of 1881.  When she emerged from repairs, she was sold to a new owner, Robert Kerr of Cleveland, Ohio who intended to use her in the iron ore trade, as her hull had gradually been downgraded to an A2 insurance rating and she was no longer suitable for the grain trade.  She was to be towed rather than sail under her own power, as iron or cargoes could be more reliably delivered by barge than by sail. 

The Sunny Side’s last voyage began on Sunday, August 19th, 1883, when she left Escanaba, Michigan with a cargo of iron ore in a tow with the schooners Samuel H. Foster and A.J. Dewey, all behind the steamer William H. Barnum.  The account of First Mate Robert W. Kerr reveals the dramatic details:

“We left Escanaba for Cleveland with 928 tons of ore, Sunday morning, August 19, in tow of the propeller WILLIAM H. BARNUM, the Schooners S.H. FOSTER and A.J. DEWEY also being in the tow. We had thick weather all day until about 5 p.m., when it cleared up abreast of Poverty Island.  Crossing the foot of Lake Michigan, we had the wind about South by West with quite a sea running. It began to look squally about 9:30 p.m., and we took in all our canvas but the foresail and foretopsail. A very heavy squall, accompanied by blinding hail and rain, struck us about 10:30, parting all our tow lines. In the height of the squall we discovered the FOSTER close on the lee bows, heading up across our bows.  The FOSTER was so close that a collision was unavoidable, so our wheel was put down, so as to strike her at as acute an angle as possible. We struck just abaft the main rigging, which, with the mainmast head, was carried away, also a number of stanchions. Our bowsprit, jibboom and foreyard were carried away. The bowsprit in slewing round, opened up her stem, and she commenced to fill immediately. The pumps were sounded and the water was found to be over the sounding rod. We made a hole in the forecastle floor and found the water nearly up to it. We were satisfied that she could not be kept afloat and lowered the boat and put the captain’s wife onboard the DEWEY, which was hove to, a short distance to leeward, and then returned to the SUNNYSIDE.  Going on board we found the water even with the top of the hatches forward. We hastily secured her books and papers and pulled off a short distance. In less than ten minutes after we left her, and an hour after the collision, she went down head foremost in thirty or forty fathoms of water.  North Fox Island bore about south by east, three or four miles distant. We pulled off down the lake and met the barge about twenty minutes afterwards, coming back after us. It picked us up and hoisted the boat on deck. The BARNUM picked the FOSTER up at daylight, but as she was leaking so badly she took a tug at Cheboygan and towed in there. Captain McGregor of the Barnum is a perfect gentleman.  He and all on board used us handsomely.  We saved nothing but what we had on. – Chicago Tribune, August 25, 1883 

Subsequent reports of the Sunny Side’s location suggested she well north of North Fox Island and in deep water:

THE LOCATION OF THE WRECK - Escanaba, August 22. - Capt. Corin of the Ed. Kelley reports passing yesterday a quantity of wreckage evidently belonging to a large schooner and which showed evidence of a collision, between North Fox and the Beaver, and a wreck with the head of a broken spar six or eight feet out of water, about three miles off the head of the North Fox. It is supposed here that the wreck is that of the Sunnyside, which left here Sunday morning in tow of the steamer W. H. Barnum. - Detroit Post and Tribune, Thursday, August 23, 1883 

The wreck’s spars apparently remained a hazard for some time:

Capt. Wells, of the schooner Reuben Doud, reports the wreck of the Sunnyside two miles off North Fox Island and a dangerous obstruction to the navigation of those waters, as her spars are held in position and might catch a vessel at night or in thick weather.  It is a job for a wrecker or the Andy Johnson to clear them away. – Green Bay Gazette, September 8, 1883

The Sunny Side was obviously a total loss and her final paper was surrendered at Cleveland on February 5, 1884 annotated “Vessel sunk and abandoned.”  She was covered by insurance:

Cheboygan. - The FOSTER is still here and an examination shows that her decks have started, her stanchions and beams are broken and split along the starboard side, her props are moved several inches out of place, and although she does not leak much at present it is evident she is badly damaged. She is insured for $18,000 and is owned by J.C. Gilchrist of Vermillion. The SUNNYSIDE was insured in three companies for $15,000 and owned by Robert Kerr, her master. At the time of the collision it was blowing furiously from the Southwest, pitch hard, and raining. All three carried the same head sail, and this caused the SUNNYSIDE to shoot ahead of the FOSTER, for the three Schooners had broken adrift. The SUNNYSIDE striking the FOSTER on the starboard side amidship. The FOSTER's crew leaped on to the SUNNYSIDE, but jumped back, discovering that they were on the sinking vessel, and the crew of the SUNNYSIDE took to their boats and pulled away to the DEWEY, about half a mile away. The SUNNYSIDE went down in probably thirty fathoms of water. -- Cheboygan Report. - Marine Record, Aug. 23, 1883 

The Sunny Side soon became a distant memory and was forgotten by all until the late 1950s when a little-known Michigan treasure hunter named Calvin DeViney began to create an elaborate and remarkably detailed set of Great Lakes treasure maps under the name “Flint Treasure Map Enterprises,” which he published in 1962. DeViney was one of the first to conduct original research into historic wrecks and his maps showed the historical location of nearly 1000 historic Great Lakes wrecks.  It was DeViney who first placed the Sunnyside on the reef at the southwest end of North Fox Island, and multiple generations of researchers repeated the location in books, shipwreck maps and histories.  When Garten first visited the reef off the southwest corner of North Fox in the 1960s, he found an iron ore strewn wreck exactly where DeViney showed it to be and it was pronounced the Sunnyside.

The only problem is that the Sunny Side, by all accounts, sank in deep water two to four miles northeast of North Fox Island.  Indeed, her spars were breaking the surface and the location was consistently repeated by multiple sources, including her own crew.  Her depth was given as 30 to 40 fathoms of water, which is not out of the question for a sailing vessel with masts that were likely nearly 170 feet high. What then, was the wreck Garten had been dynamiting on the southwest reef?

In 1962, when DeViney was researching, this would have been a difficult, if not impossible question to answer, as early newspapers were just being microfilmed and were only locally available.  However, with the advent of the information age, it is now possible to unravel the mystery.  A different, even larger schooner eventually left her bones on the southwest reef of North Fox Island.  On October 11, 1887, the big schooner Leonard Hanna piled into the southwest reef off North Fox.  She was 190 feet by 34 feet and carrying iron ore when lost, making her remains look much like those of the Sunny Side.  Her identity was further complicated by early news accounts that erroneously stated she was on South Fox Island.  All the later accounts, including those of the salvors and underwriters who visited her are clear that she was on the southwest corner of North Fox Island.

The Schooner Leonard Hanna Ashore on the North Fox – She was exposed to the brisk north wind that was blowing last night – Northport, Mich., October 10th – At 3 o’clock Sunday morning, the schooner Leonard Hanna, bound from Escanaba to Ashtabula with 1,300 tons of iron ore ran ashore on the southwest end of the North Fox Island.  The weather was thick. She is out two feet forward, but her stern is clear.  She is leaking.  She is exposed to the brink northerly wind that is blowing tonight and she is likely to sustain considerable damage if she does not pound to pieces.  The Leviathan has gone to her assistance.  The vessel is owned by L. Hanna and Co. of Cleveland and is valued at $25,000 – Chicago Inter-Ocean, October 11, 1887

Once the salvors had visited her, she was found to be a total loss:

The Leonard Hanna’s Wreck – Cheboygan, Mich, October 15th – The Leviathan arrived this morning with the crew and outfit of the schooner Leonard Hanna, stranded on North Fox.  The vessel is broken in several places amidships, having settled over huge bowlders, and the bow has dropped down six feet so that she is a complete wreck, being broken completely in two.  The cargo of ore was also lost – Chicago Inter-Ocean, October 17, 1887

The Hanna’s enrollment was surrendered at Cleveland, Ohio on October 20th, 1887 annotated “vessel lost.”  The remains of the Leonard Hanna are now clearly visible on Google Earth and rest atop the southwest reef at North Fox Island in a widely articulated debris field. 

Nearby are thought to lie the partially salvaged remains of the big steamer Hiram W. Sibley, lost on the southwest reef in November of 1898.  She was also incorrectly initially reported elsewhere, but the accounts of the salvors are very specific:

Condition of the Sibley – The steamer Hiram W. Sibley now lies on the beach at North Fox Island.  She is on the southwest side of the island, lying in ten feet of water and resting on boulders.  There are big holes in her bottom and the hold is full of water. An expedition of tugs and vessels left there this afternoon to get the grain out of her.  It is though that she can be released if bad weather does not prevent it.  The steamer was reported ashore on South Manitou Island on Saturday night, having gone on in the heavy snowstorm the previous night. 

It is reported later that the wrecking tugs Protector and Sweepstakes returned to Charlevoix yesterday morning from the wreck of the steamer Hiram W. Sibley of North Fox Island. The stranded steamer was badly broken up in the gale of Sunday night and has been abandoned as a total wreck.  The crew of the Sibley came in on the Sweepstakes.  The cargo of the lost steamer consisted of 70,000 bushels of corn, which was insured for $25,000.  The vessel was insured for $70,000.  She was built in 1890 and was 221 feet long and 27 feet beam.  Her tonnage was 1418. – Buffalo Review, November 30, 1898

The Sibley’s hull was purchased by salvors on March 31st, 1899, but her final paper was never surrendered.  It is clear that she never sailed again, as she was struck from insurance records and never again appears in any arrival or departure lists.  Her engine and boilers were likely recovered, but her substantial wooden remains still lie upon the reef.

It is consequently, likely that the “Sunnyside” furniture comes from a combination of the timbers of the Leonard Hanna and the Hiram W. Sibley.  It should be possible to discern the wrecksites on the basis of iron ore remains, which likely litter the Leonard Hanna’s remains.  This forensic investigation does, to some extent, show the folly of cutting up shipwrecks for furniture.  In many cases, wrecks were completely removed without ever really being identified.  Because their remains are now gone, we can no longer know their real story, and we now know that the hundreds of “Sunnyside” artifacts aren’t actually from the Sunny Side at all.

But what of the Sunny Side?  Her remains are clearly yet to be found.  If we examine the detailed descriptions of the crew and subsequent reports from passing vessels who encountered her mast breaking the surface, we can conclude that she foundered around 3-4 miles northeast of North Fox Island.  The mate states that North Fox Island bore 3 or 4 miles South by East at the time of the loss.  Other accounts relate a spar 6-8 feet out of the water, 3 or 4 miles off the head of North Fox.  A final account notes her spars fixed in place around 2 miles off the head of North Fox.  Given the likely height of the Sunny Side’s masts and the reports that she lay in 30 to 40 fathoms, it is likely that she lies in water from 150 to 170 feet.

Based on the stated distance and depth, it is likely that the Sunny Side lies inside the box shown at right, probably just off the shallower portion of the reef three miles northeast of North Fox Island.  The Fox Islands are remote, with little shelter and no docks.  A wreck-hunting trip to the Foxes is no small undertaking, but it seems likely that the Sunny Side could be located with side scan sonar.  While it is important to correct the historical record, it is also somewhat gratifying to discover that this one-time “Queen of the Lakes” actually escaped the furniture makers and lies intact in the depths off North Fox.



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