Two Lost Civil War Era Sailing Ships Discovered in Lake Huron

The schooner Augustus Handy and Nightingale Discovered

Two longtime friends and shipwreck enthusiasts, Joe Van Wagnen and Mark Gammage have discovered an intact schooner in Lake Huron that sunk less than a month after the Confederate Army fired on Fort Sumter on April 12th, 1861 signaling the start of the Civil War.

The Ship and Crew

  The schooner Augustus Handy, loaded 16,000 bushels of corn at Chicago on its way to Kingston, Ontario, making its way north in Lake Michigan clearing the Straits of Mackinaw.  On May 7th, 1861 the Handy navigated out into open Lake Huron and rough seas.  At 6pm that evening they struck Spectacle Reef about 12 nautical miles east of Cheboygan, Michigan.  According to the Captain George Brown’s account “they pounded for a few moments and then worked off into deep water” and started to sink.  The ship filled so quickly that the crew did not have time to gather their belongings and barely escaped in the yawl boat as the schooner plunged to the bottom.  Luckily, all hands were saved, but their ordeal wasn’t over yet.  After surviving going down with their ship they had to row the yawl the 12 miles to Cheboygan in rough weather and then another 15 miles to Mackinaw where they obtained passage on the Steamer Cleveland, which transported them to Detroit, reporting the shipwreck upon their arrival.  The Augustus Handy was built in 1855 in Cleveland, Ohio by Quayle & Martin and owned at the time by John Warner of Cleveland.  Quayle was a shipwright who immigrated to the United States from the Isle of Man bringing his expertise to the art of wooden shipbuilding in the Great Lakes.  The schooner was of a sleek design with a cutwater bow and a raked back stern.  She had two masts and measured 126 feet long, 26 feet wide and 11 feet deep.  These measurements were critical so that the ship could fit in the Welland Canal and navigate from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario.  The grain trade from the Midwest to the East was very prevalent during this period in history and many ships made the journey to feed the big cities of the East.

The Research

After researching potential undiscovered shipwreck sites Joe and Mark decided to target the Spectacle Reef area.  It was more remote and offered multiple opportunities.  Several ships have come to grief on this reef shaped like a pair of spectacles with two raised areas connected by a bridge of rock.  Mark had dived the reef with Steve Kroll of Rogers City in the early 1980’s and they dove a wreck that was broken up on the northwest side of the reef that Steve had located.  It was felt at the time that this was most likely the wreck of the Schooner Kates Hayes lost in 1856.  This loss was followed by the Schooner Asia in 1866, the Bark Alice Richards and the Schooners R. G. Winslow and Annie Vought in 1867 and the Schooner Nightingale in 1869. These losses were used to justify the building of a lighthouse in 1871 to prevent further losses.  Research indicates that the Annie Vought was salvaged the following year and put back into service, the Winslow broke up on the reef with the stern section floating southwest and coming ashore at Presque Isle, but no mention of the Richards a being complete loss or being salvaged.  The Schooner Asia also probably broke up in shallow water on the reef and was a total loss according to newspaper accounts. The remains of the Nightingale were on the exact spot where the lighthouse was to be built, so Captain George Hand and his wrecking tug Magnet was hired to remove the wreck.  Newspaper accounts of the day said it was cut up into pieces and sunk in deep water.  This left the Augustus Handy as being the primary target for the search since it drifted away from the reef after striking it and sinking in deep water giving it the potential to still be intact, while the others were broken up.

Sometimes You Find Something That You Aren’t Looking For

There are instances of shipwrecks either being found when looking for another ship or simply by traveling from one location to another and stumbling across it and this search was no exception.  In the search for the Augustus Handy a target was visualized on the side scan sonar after a period of covering the search grid and it appeared that it was right on the search line with the bow on one side and the stern on the other.  There wasn’t much doubt from the image that it was a ship and in a logical position to be the Handy.  The Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) was deployed to investigate the target and determine its identity.  It was quickly discovered that this ship was probably not the Handy.  It had been stripped of anything of value including the ship’s wheel, anchors, chain and tackle.  According to the research the Handy most likely sunk in water too deep to salvage in 1861 and this ship was in shallower water.  Although the deck on the bow and stern were somewhat intact the middle of the ship was flattened with the starboard side of the hull collapsed in and the port side of the hull collapsed out.  There also appeared to be some of the iron ore cargo left in the middle section of the ship.  This and the approximate measurements of the ship from side scan images suggest that it is the remains of the Schooner Nightingale.  This conflicts with the newspaper accounts that it was cut up and sunk in deep water, but the newspaper accounts have not always proven to be reliable.  The hull is all there from stem to stern, but something in the side scan imaged suggests how it got there.  There are trailing marks between the reef and the shipwreck site suggesting that it was literally dragged stern first across the bottom by George Hand’s powerful wrecking tug down the steep slope almost a half a mile to its final resting spot after being lightened of its cargo and gear.

The Augustus Handy Is Still Out There

Although it was disappointing that the discovery was not the Handy it helped to illustrate what happened to the Nightingale when it was removed to build the lighthouse and the Herculean feat it must have been to drag the 138-foot schooner across the bottom.  There were areas of the original search grid that had not yet been covered.  In the last section a target was spotted in deep water and it appeared as though it was looking down the length of the ship, which did not provide a clear image on the side scan sonar.  The GPS location was noted and another angle was used to get a clearer picture of the target.  There was no doubt this time that an intact two masted sailing vessel had been discovered fitting the dimension of the Augustus Handy.

The Exploration

The wreck was grappled near the stern and the ROV was deployed.  The excitement was palpable from anticipation while descending down the line.  Soon the ship’s raked back stern came within view.  The first thing that was noticed was that the rudder was turned hard to port.  Did the crew see the reef at the last moment and try to steer away?  The empty yawl davits hung off the stern indicating where the crew launched the boat to save themselves.  Coming over the stern rail an intact ship’s wheel was evident, which was stationed behind where the cabin once stood.  Air trapped in the cabin when it sank blew it off, which is very common.  The cook stove lay in one corner.  Moving forward the main mast was tipped over to the port side, but held up off the bottom with an intact crosstree on the end.  Moving amidships the deck was somewhat heaved up and broken, but all three hatches were intact with what was left of the cargo of corn visible inside.  It is highly likely that the retractable centerboard was extended when it hit and could have caused the damage to the deck when it pounded over the reef.  The foremast had also fallen to port, but did not do as much damage to the deck.  Up on the bow both anchors were still attached to the catheads and rail.  The anchor windlass was tipped over on the port side and part of the bowsprit was broken off and lay on the bottom in front of the bow.  Despite the damages noted the ship is very intact with no apparent hull damage.  The bow is of an elegant cutwater design and the ship is sitting completely upright.  The ship was exactly how it was left when abandoned at 6pm on May 7th, 1861.

More Research and Preservation

There is more we can learn from the Augustus Handy and preservation is an essential step.  Both the Nightingale and Augustus Handy are within the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary and Underwater Preserve.  It is illegal to take artifacts or disturb the site.  This helps to ensure that we can learn from time capsules like these; about shipbuilding during this time period and the lives of the people who sailed these ships.  The Great Lakes is a unique place in the world where ships of this vintage are not much different than the day they sank.  We now live in an age where pictures and videos of discoveries like this can be shared with people who would never get a chance to see them and hear the stories they have to tell.  More dives are planned for the Augustus Handy to see what else she has to share and there are more undiscovered shipwrecks to find.  “The adventure continues.”

The discovery of the Augustus Handy is dedicated to the memory of Larry Johnson.  Friend and fellow adventurer.



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