Hidden deep within the icy grip of Lake Erie, a steamboat with a long history of service to the people laid lost on the lakebed. The P.S. Anthony Wayne was a cargo steamer ship that was used to move people, wine and cattle to towns across Lake Erie.
On one such trip to Buffalo, a sudden explosion shook the night as the two boilers on the right side of the ship ignited and combusted. This effectively took out the engine room, leaving the ship to flounder and sink.
The P.S Anthony Wayne lay undisturbed at the bottom of Lake Erie for 155 years. Then in the late fall of 2005 it was discovered by Tom Kowalczk, a diver for the Cleveland Ohio Explorers Inc (aka. CLUE).
The Start Of The Search
Tom started his career diving for lost ships in the late 1960’s as the hype for finding these sunken treasures started to peak. Equipped with only a chart of over 200 shipwrecks from a local store, and a depth sounder, Tom started his search for the Anthony Wayne along with a list of other ships.
This proved to be difficult since the technology could only ping the depths in a vertical direction. However, this changed in 2004 when Tom was able to get a side scan sonar.
“That made a huge difference in my ability to go out and cover areas of the lake bottom,” said Tom. “It shoots a sound signal in the water and instead of going straight up and down like a depth sounder, it shoots the sound beams out to the sides, covering a huge amount of area on both sides of the boat. When that return echo comes back from the signal it will mark any obstructions sticking up from the bottom.”
This new advancement gave Tom the ability to search 1,300 miles at a time. That is equivalent to four football fields lined up end to end. He soon started to search the open waters for the ships that had sunk so long ago.
In his search for the Anthony Wayne, Tom covered 3,500 “straight line” miles with the side scan sonar, going back and forth along the surface in lines. Tom described this technique as “mowing the lawn” when you make one pass and then turn around and go down the opposite direction.
After the many years of effort Tom had put into finding this piece of history, he received a hefty reward for his efforts.
After receiving a ping on the sonar Tom moved towards the area, increasing the resolution on the sonar to make the images clearer. “Once I saw the paddle wheels and the shadows of the paddles,” said Tom, “I pretty much knew that’s what it was because it’s the only one out there in this part of the lake that is a steamboat. I was pretty certain it was the Anthony Wayne.”
Tom said that finding something that numerous people had searched for was thrilling. This day of rewards would not end for Tom with the discovery of the Anthony Wayne. That day, Tom would also go on to discover two more wrecks nearby, making it a day for the history books of discovery.
Lake Erie’s Underwater Museums
This discovery would prove to have a great historical impact. The paddle wheels and the framework holding them together were intact making it a beautiful sight to see.
Most wrecks can be hard to distinguish from the silt and sea life around them due to years of deterioration. “Some of it does still protrude, but they’re not intact.” Explained Tom “There’s lots of pieces that are missing and busted off over the years. So they don’t look particularly like a ship you would see floating on the water.”
This makes the discovery of the wreck a phenomenal find, but what really set it apart was the engine. Not only was the Anthony Wayne the only steamer in that part of the lake, it was also unique. Most steamships of the day had vertical steam engines sticking 15 to 20 feet in the air; however, the Anthony Wayne had a horizontal steam engine that stretched through the belly of the ship.
However, due to the Abandoned Shipwrecks Act of 1987, you won’t see the Anthony Wayne in a museum any time soon. The Abandoned Shipwrecks Act was passed to preserve and protect the wrecked ships, not only from looters, but also from the environment that is on land. “Once they’re waterlogged in the lake,” explained Tom, “when you dry them out the wood just crumbles away, and it falls apart. It turns to dust. It’s best to just leave them down there.”
Because of the desire to preserve these jewels of history, the Abandoned Shipwrecks Act directs that the ships be left in the water where they are still in good condition. In order to go see and touch these ships, there are many boats that will take divers out to known shipwrecks and let them swim among these monuments forever buried under the waves of time.