Over the Waves: Margaret Olwill

My friends and family are always on the lookout for interesting ship-related content that they think I'll enjoy, and I can't get enough (for obvious reasons!). My dad sent me an article from the Toronto Sun about this wreck a little while ago. This is an example of the kind of maritime history I absolutely love - a little known steamer from a time when almost everything we did had to be done over the waves, found so her story can continue on. This steamer, the Margaret Olwill, didn't lead a particularly interesting career like some of the other vessels I've written about, but she captured the imagination of shipwreck hunters who, after 118 years, were able to find her. 

Ship Stats

  • Nationality: American

  • Length: 54 metres

  • Beam: 10.4m

  • Draught: 3.1 metres

  • Tonnage: 925 tonnes

  • Year: 1887

Built and owned by James P. Smith (J.P & L.A. Smith) of Chicago, the Margaret Olwill was a steam freighter during an era when almost all goods and services were delivered by ship to the communities along the water’s edge. A reliable vessel, her wood and steel hull kept her sturdy against the weather of the Great Lakes. 

The Olwill’s main route was along the coast of Lake Erie, between Kelley’s Island and Cleveland, Ohio. Though she’s the shallowest of the Great Lakes, Lake Erie is far from the most docile; she is notorious for storms that arrive with such force and fury that they’ve sent schooners, steamships, and freighters to her depths without a second warning.

The Olwill had maintained an unremarkable career was unremarkable until the night of June 28th, 1899. Having departed Kelley’s island with a full load of limestone and 12 souls aboard, the Olwill was on a course for Cleveland when a storm blew up across the surface of the water. She tried for a time to push against the high winds and waves, but sometime between midnight and 2:00am on June 29th, her Captain decided to turn back and try and seek shelter somewhere nearby.

This decision proved to be a costly mistake; the ship was caught in the trough of the waves, and in a short time was swamped, overturning and disappearing under the waves.

The Margaret Olwill at Kelley's Island, Ohio. Image from Bowling Green State University.

At 5:15am, the Captain of the steamer State of Ohio spotted debris floating in the water. As his ship neared the site, his crew were shocked to find four survivors, clinging onto the remains of their ship for dear life. A local newspaper, the Plain Dealer, described the scene: “Some of the dead lost their lives when help was almost within reach. After hours of suffering, tossed about by the sea, the four men who were rescued from the wreck were picked up by passing vessels and taken to places of safety in a condition more dead than alive.”

One of the survivors, too weak after hours in the cold water, was unable to grab the rope that was tossed to him and drowned shortly after. Of the 12 souls on board, 8 were killed, including the Captain, his wife, and their 9-year-old son.

The location of the wreck remained a mystery for years. However, as with most shipwrecks, the story never fully disappeared and was picked up by one group in particular - Cleveland Underwater Explorers (CLUE). Rob Ruetschle, a longtime shipwreck hunter and one of the members, had spent almost three decades trying to find the Margaret Olwill. In 1989 he thought he had come close – a shadow on a scan looked like it could have been the hull of a ship, and the position was right – but it was a pile of rocks and a sunken tree trunk.

In 2016, he and CLUE set out on another try, but again came up empty. In July 2017, Ruetschle said he would attempt one more search for the elusive steamer. He decided to ship their search area over and dove that first evening.

To his surprise, he found her.

The Margaret Olwill on the bottom of Lake Erie. Image from Cleveland Underwater Explorers, 2017.

The Margaret Olwill rests on the bottom of Lake Erie 48 kilometres west of Cleveland, near Lorain, Ohio. In 15.2 meters of water, she can be reached, though the mud and silt that make up the bottom of the lake can make for poor visibility. After the first dive on July 26th, 2017, CLUE decided they needed to schedule a second dive to make a positive identification. On August 9th, the team returned to the site and did a more thorough assessment of the wreck. With visability at a mere two feet, it’s remarkable they were able to identify anything, but they successfully located the vertical steeple steam engine boiler that had been in the ship’s stern – the missing piece to the puzzle that revealed this was, in fact, the Margaret Olwill.

On their website, CLUE describes the wreck as consisting of a stem rising around 14 feet off the bottom, with a steel windlass and bollards to the aft. They continue:

“Two anchor chains run through hawser pipes on top of a deck block and run out and disappear into the mud on both the port and starboard sides. The port rail is up and has part of the deck house framing posts, 4 in total, still sitting about six feet above the rail. Aft of the deck house framing the rail runs about another 90 feet towards the stern before breaking and becoming buried in the mud. The wreck is listing to the starboard side where it becomes buried in the mud bottom which is pushed up several feet from the hard impact when it sank 118 years ago.”

CLUE doesn't release the locations of newly discovered wrecks to keep them protected, but they intend to do a full archaeological workup in the future. Congratulations to them; I look forward to reading the final report.