Text by Vlada Dekina
Photography by Vlada Dekina and Tom Wilson
It cannot be done…impossible… they would have to break the bow to get them out… they cannot be there just for decoration, could they? These and other perplexing thoughts raced though my brain as I was reviewing my pictures of the anchors proudly attached to the bow of the shipwreck John M. Osborne. Although, “embedded into the bow” would be a more suitable description. The anchors in question had their flukes crossed inside the ship with the stocks outside, and neither flukes nor stocks appeared to be removable. No matter how long I stared at the photos from all available angles, I still could not figure out how those anchors could be deployed because each shank went through a very small hole in the side of the ship.

A few weeks of research later, I found my answer. In the process of searching for that explanation, I also learned the history of Osborne as well as the details of the ill-fated collision which sent her to the bottom of Lake Superior to become one of the premier wrecks in Michigan’s Whitefish Underwater Preserve.

John M. Osborne was a propeller-driven freighter made of wood and designed for carrying bulk cargo. Built in 1882 by Morley & Hill Shipyards at Marine City, Michigan, those vessel types were also known as “steam barges.”

At the time, Osborne’s launch steam technology had almost completely displaced wind power, however that replacement had not fully run its course as most new steamers built in the 1880s were still being outfitted with two or three masts and carried basic sail rigging to be used in addition to the steam power or in case it failed.

When launched, Osborne had three masts and was 178 ft long. It could carry 700 tons of bulk cargo in its holds, but almost never ran alone—the common practice of the times was for a steamer to tow a string of up to five schooner-barges. So efficient and profitable was this practice that most schooners of those days were built to be barges with the basic sail riggings and were never expected to raise their sails unless it was to assist the steamers in favorable wind conditions or in order to survive in an emergency. Cutting the consort schooner-barges loose in cases when the steamer ran into trouble was an accepted practice and often resulted in both vessels surviving.
On July 27, 1884, two years after its launch, still relatively new, Osborne was underway on its usual route between Marquette, Michigan and Ashtabula in Ohio. It was heavily laden with iron ore. In addition to the ore in its holds, Osborne was also towing two ore laden schooner-barges, the George Davis and Thomas Gawn.

Approaching Whitefish Point, about ten miles northwest, Osborne encountered a sea of dense fog common for the area. Checking down his vessels’ speed to just five miles per hour, the Captain ordered the fog signal to be sounded at regular intervals.

Unknown to the mariners in Osborne’s pilothouse, the 260 ft steel passenger steamer Alberta, on her regular trip between Owen Sound and Port Arthur, was rounding the point in the opposite direction. Upon entering the same pea soup fog, Alberta’s Captain gave orders for the fog signal, but did not reduce speed in accordance with the conditions and powered onward at the usual speed in excess of 10 miles per hour.

With radio, radar, and other modern technologies of navigation years in the future, the fog signals alone did not provide enough warning, so when the bow of Alberta suddenly materialized out of the fog steaming towards Osborne, there was little either Captain could do. The steel bow of Alberta penetrated sixteen feet into Osborne’s starboard side near the stern, fatally puncturing her boiler. So deep was the gash, it almost cut Osborne in two despite the sturdy cargo of iron ore.

While it was later determined Alberta’s excessive speed played a role in the collision, the inertia generated by that speed likely saved the lives of most of Osborne’s crew. The momentum generated by Alberta’s speed caused the two vessels to remain connected for a few minutes, with Alberta’s bow temporarily plugging the massive hole in Osborne’s side. This precious time allowed most of the crew to make their way to the Alberta. Only three of Osborne’s crew were lost along with one from the Alberta who went overboard trying to save Osborne’s fireman.

When the ships drifted apart, Osborne rapidly plunged to the bottom 165 ft away while Alberta slowly made her way to Sault St. Mary for repairs costing almost $22,000. Osborne was deemed a total loss, and the damages were assessed by the insurance company at $88,000. Osborne’s consorts were successfully taken under tow by a passing vessel.

Tragically, this was Alberta’s fourth collision of the season. Built in Scotland in 1883 for its Canadian owners, she had to be cut in half in order to fit through the Welland Canal and was then reassembled in Buffalo, NY. Along with her sister ship, Athabasca, Alberta became one of the first large steel steamers in the Great Lakes. Trying to impress the passengers and other ship lines with her speed, Alberta terrified other vessels on the Lakes and earned the nickname “the menace of the lakes.” Two weeks after she sent Osborne to the bottom, Alberta was involved in yet another collision, with the steamer Campana at Sault Ste. Marie.

Despite her propensity to run into other innocent vessels, Alberta managed a very long and productive life toiling the Great Lakes trade routes. She was lengthened in 1911 to 305 ft to increase her cargo capacity and survived until eventually being scrapped in 1947.

With the passage of time, the victim of Alberta terror John M. Osborne became one of the most visited wrecks in Whitefish Underwater Preserve. As one of the popular wrecks, Osborne is typically buoyed during the summer dive season. At the time of our visit, a team of amateur archaeologists associated with Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum was running a survey, accounting for the tape measure showing in some of the photographs. The Museum features a small model of Osborne as well as some exceptional artifacts recovered from this wreck as well as other wrecks in the area. The main attraction of the museum is of course the bell from Edmund Fitzgerald as well as other exhibits devoted to that famous wreck.

Sitting upright in 165 feet of frigid Lake Superior water, Osborne is remarkably intact near the bow and past amidships slowly gives way to the debris field that once was the stern. In the midst of that debris field, two boilers tower silently above the destruction. Some remains of the piping as well as a few ceramic dishes are also located nearby; mementos from Osborne’s working days above water.

The engine is still in place, and it is an unusual one. It appears to be covered by wooden slats—was it done to reduce the noise? This strange engine also has some interesting and rare inscriptions that consist of separate characters around the bottom on the cylinders, painted in yellow.

Heading from the engine and boilers towards the bow, the wreck slowly begins to take shape with the deck appearing to be more and more intact and even sporting high railings on the sides. The heavy mechanical winch sits on top of the main deck and currently serves as a tie-in point for visiting dive boats.

The deck is littered with the remains of the three masts with crosstrees and blocks still attached. The fife rail for the main mast still contains four intact belaying pins. The yardarms and remains of the rigging cris-cross the masts in unpredictable patterns. Looking at the erratic arrangements of masts, yardarms, and rigging, one gets the feeling that the trip to the bottom was anything but nice and gentle.

The forward cabin was blown off during the sinking, but other than that, the bow is remarkably intact with capstan, windlass, and its twin anchors still in place as they were before the collision. The anchors are crossed inside the bow, creating confusion in the minds of visiting divers who are not aware of the secret of their deployment.

So, what was the answer to the anchor mystery? The solution was so remarkably logical I was surprised it did not occur to me earlier; the bow has flush-fitting doors on either side of the stem post that would swing open to deploy the anchors.