Where is the Thomas H. Smith?

Lost Ship of the Month

The wreck of the month for January is the lost steamer Thomas H. Smith, missing since November 11, 1893 when she was sunk by collision in a heavy fog of Racine, Wisconsin.  The Smith was bound light from Chicago to Menomonee, Michigan, carry a crew of 12 when she was stuck amidships by the big steamer Arthur Orr, sending her to the bottom within 15 minutes. 

Chicago, Nov. 11 - The stmr. ARTHUR ORR collided with and sunk the steam barge THOMAS A. SMITH, off Racine at 3:30 this morning.  The crew of the SMITH were rescued without loss of life and were brought here on the ORR. The SMITH was commanded by Capt. Thomas Olson and the ORR by Capt. Montague. The SMITH was bound from this port to Menominee to load lumber and the ORR was running light from Milwaukee here. The dense fog which hung over the lake caused the accident. When first seen by the crew of the ORR the SMITH was 300 ft. away. The engines were reversed, but it was too late and she struck the SMITH a little aft the port hatch and cut in about 3 feet. Boats were lowered from both steamers at once, and the 12 men which formed the SMITH's crew were all rescued without trouble. The SMITH was owned by A. Leatham and Smith of Sturgeon Bay and was worth about $15,000. She was built at Manitowoc in 1881. - Detroit News-Tribune, November 12, 1893 

The Smith was a small bulk freight steamer, sometimes referred to as a tug due to her relatively small size.  She was built in 1881 at Manitowoc by the Rand and Burger yard for the well-known Sturgeon Bay businessman Thomas Smith. 

Leathem & Smith's new steambarge was launched at Manitowoc a few day ago. She has not yet received her boiler, and she will not probably be ready to go into commission until late in the fall. She is designed for towing. She is to be named the THOMAS H. SMITH, after one of her owners. She is expected here in a few days. - Chicago Tribune, Thursday, October 27, 1881 

The Leatham & Smith Towing and Wrecking Company, of Sturgeon Bay, mentioned in the Marine Review last week, will utilize the steamer THOMAS H. SMITH for wrecking purposes. Her engine is to be placed amidship and other necessary changes made. The SMITH measures 200 net tons and possess good power. Her draught is also suitable for the business. - The Marine Review, January 21, 1892 

We have an excellent first-person wreck report of the disaster reported in the hand of the ship’s master, Thomas Olson, which states she was about four to fives miles of Racine’s Wind Point when she sank.  Despite the detailed location of the loss, the ship has never been found, despite numerous reputed attempts.

The main reason the Smith hasn’t been found is the fact that she was lost in a heavy fog and neither vessel had a visual reference to land at the time of the collision.  The only reliable evidence about where the collision actually occurred are the accounts given of debris recovered by vessels after the accident, which only state generally that debris was recovered “off Racine.”  The various news accounts reported the following locations for the loss:  “Three miles NE of Racine Point,” “Four miles off this port,” “Four miles out,” “120 feet of water,” “Eight miles out from Racine,” “Nearly 100 feet of water.”  The official wreck report stated the loss was “About four to five miles off Racine Point” but that area has reportedly been searched.

Despite claims that the area has been searched, I suspect the Smith probably lies not far from the reported location of her loss.  It is unlikely that a comprehensive side scan sonar search of the entire area off Wind Point has ever been thoroughly conducted and the Smith may well be broken up.  An analysis of her likely location follows.

The map above from the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory is the most detailed depth map ever produced for the offshore area.  It shows that in general, the depth 5 miles out is 75 ft., the depth 9 miles out is 150 ft. and the depth 12 miles out is 225 ft.

The obvious issue with the report of the ship being 4 to 5 miles out is that they don’t line up with the reported depths of water given as nearly 100 ft. and 120 ft. respectively.  Because of these conflicting data points, the lack of a visual shore reference at the time, and the known shipping lanes, it is possible that the Smith could lie in water as shallow as 60 ft. or as deep as 160 ft.  I doubt the Smith would have been much further out than the current modern Chicago shipping lane, which is 8 miles out.  Likewise, it is possible that the Smith could be slightly south of the Point, closer to Racine or a few miles north of the Point. 

This grid covers all the reasonable possibilities and is possible to cover with a multi-day search, as it is approximately 5 miles by 5 miles, or 25 square miles.

It is noteworthy that the Smith’s hull is likely in poor condition, but her boilers and engine were extremely large and contrary to modern reports didn’t explode when she sank, as she sank slowly, taking nearly an hour.  As such, they should show up very clearly on sidescan.  If I were to search for the Smith, I would begin with the northeast quadrant of the above grid, then do the northwest quadrant.

I would welcome discussion regarding this ship’s final location, as she is likely to be the subject of a number of searching the upcoming season.



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