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Divers Uncover 1899 Lake Erie Shipwreck

The Margaret Olwill ship sunk off the coast of Lorain, Ohio in June 1899.
Historical Collection of the Great Lakes/Bowling Green State University]
The Margaret Olwill ship sunk off the coast of Lorain, Ohio in June 1899.

The Margaret Olwill was on its way to Cleveland from Kelley’s Island at the end of June 1899, carrying 900 tons of limestone and 12 passengers. Caught in a storm, the captain tried to make a turn and the ship rolled over on one side. The steam barge sank in Lake Erie off the coast of Lorain, Ohio.

The captain, his wife, their 9-year old son, as well as a family friend and a cousin all died, along with three others. Four crew members survived.

Today, a group of Lake Erie divers announced the discovery of the Olwill. Searching about 60 square miles of Lake Erie, Cleveland native Rob Ruetschle found the ship last summer, ending a 29-year effort. He says the wreck is intact.

“The bow and about 90 feet of it are above the silt and mud line, and then going towards the stern, it’s covered in a fine layer of mud and silt, and the engine is sticking up,” Ruetschle said.

Though he lives in California now, Ruetschle makes trips every year to dive Lake Erie with local group Cleveland Underwater Explorers, or CLUE.

CLUE collaborates with the National Museum of the Great Lakes on locating and identifying shipwrecks in Lake Erie. Museum director Chris Gillcrist says the Olwill shipwreck including the loss of life and the family tragedy in the story makes it a compelling one.

“The fact that the survivors are described by the local newspaper in Cleveland at the time as ‘closer to dead than alive’ when they’re pulled from the water,” said Gillcrist. “It really illustrates the danger of the Great Lakes and in particular Lake Erie.”

CLUE and the National Museum of the Great Lakes have yet to identify two other shipwrecks first discovered in 2016.

Ruetschle says he’d like to dive the Olwill again to take more photos and do an in-depth archeological survey.

“It’s more so the history and what took place at the time, and what caused the sinking – the story that’s involved.”

Reporter/producer Elizabeth Miller joined ideastream after a stint at NPR headquarters in Washington D.C., where she served as an intern on the National Desk, pitching stories about everything from a gentrified Brooklyn deli to an app for lost dogs. Before that, she covered weekend news at WAKR in Akron and interned at WCBE, a Columbus NPR affiliate. Elizabeth grew up in Columbus before moving north to attend Baldwin Wallace, where she graduated with a degree in broadcasting and mass communications.