Minnesota's Lake Superior Shipwrecks
Vessel Types on the Great Lakes


Sailing Craft

Sailing craft as defined here include all manner of large commercial ships (more than 50 feet in length) propelled by sail, regardless of rig. Sailing vessels are generally classified according to rigging (i.e., number of masts and shape of the sails). These include sloops, schooners, brigs and brigantines, barkentines, and unpowered consort-barges.

Sloops are vessels with single masts containing a gaff mainsail and headsails. They were some of the earliest vessels on the Great Lakes, but were not used extensively for commercial purposes.

Schooners were initially two-masted vessels that had one or two square sails on the foremast and a gaff topsail on the main mast. Later schooners had three and even four masts. Schooners were an early vessel type on the Great Lakes and soon became the most popular vessel type, a popularity that was to last throughout the age of commercial sailing on the Great Lakes. They could use a longer and narrower hull than a sloop and were thus faster yet had a good cargo capacity.

Brigs/brigantines are two-masted vessels with square sails on the foremast and a gaf sail with a boom on the mainmast. Most lake brigs contained staysails and jibs on the mainmast in addition to the square sails and staysails on the mainmast with the gaff-top spanker.

Barkentines are three-masted vessels with square sails on the foremast and gaff sails on the main mast and the mizzen mast. The foremast sails usually consisted of a square foresail, topsail, topgallant sail, and one royal.

Consort-barges classified as commercial sailing vessels are either sailing vessels converted to barges or those built as barges containing masts. Most consort-barges were rigged as schooners.

Sailing Craft on Lake Superior are significant as representatives of specific vessel types as well as sources of information on shipbuilding technology, maritime activity, and shipboard culture. They are significant as the earliest commercial craft used on Lake Superior, excluding the canoes and bateaux of the fur-trading era. Cargoes were carried in sail-powered vessels of various descriptions that were largely unspecialized with regard to their cargo carrying design. They increased in number as the Midwest was populated, farmed, and eventually industrialized. The use of commercial sailing craft on the Great Lakes decreased sharply in the late 19th century with the introduction of steam power, propellers, and metal hulls. There are relatively few sailing ship era vessels sunk in the Minnesota waters of Lake Superior, as the trades were centered on the other Lakes until the commercial sailing days were nearly done. The arrival of large numbers of commercial ships to the Head of the Lakes dates to 1880. By then the golden era of sail had already past.


Passenger and Package Freight Steamers

Passenger and package freight steamers on the Great Lakes were introduced in 1816, making their first appearance on Lake Superior in 1845. Steam vessels are generally classified according to propulsion (paddle-wheel or screw propeller). The earliest steamers were side-wheelers. There is no evidence of stern-wheelers operating on Lake Superior. Screw-driven "propellers" were introduced in 1840. They were typically configured with two or more decks. Cargo space was provided below decks in the holds. Passenger accommodations were furnished in enclosed cabins on deck. Steamers without passenger cabins were "package freighters." They had two decks and side-loading gangways. Specialized steamer types developed after 1850, though the basic types continued into the 20th century.

Side-wheel steamers had two large paddle-wheels mounted port and starboard with engines and boilers amidships. Most early side-wheelers also carried one to three masts.

Screw steamers mounted single or twin screw propellers and machinery aft. Some screw steamers carried masts through the end of the 19th century.

Passenger and package freight steamers are significant as representatives of specific vessel types, as well as sources of information on shipbuilding technology, marine engineering, maritime activity, and shipboard culture. Screw steamers predominated on Lake Superior, carrying both passengers and freight. They grew in size throughout the 19th century in response to navigational improvements and developments in marine engineering, particularly the introduction of iron and steel. Passenger and freight steamers operated successfully in conjunction with the railroads until the early 20th century. Thereafter, package cargoes decreased as the railroads expanded. The last of the large screw steamers operated as excursion vessels. Passenger and package freight steamer wrecks in the Minnesota waters of Lake Superior are primarily screw-driven vessels, as paddle-wheel technology had only limited applications on Lake Superior.


Bulk Freight Steamers

Bulk freight steamers on Lake Superior were screw steamers designed for the carriage, in bulk, of such cargoes as iron ore, grain, coal, or limestone. Bulk freight steamers represented in Minnesota's Lake Superior ship population include examples of steamers, steambarges, and specialized types such as whalebacks, constructed of wood, iron, and steel.

Screw steamers, in general, are single or twin screwed, double-decked vessels with their machinery mounted in the stern and a small raised forecastle at the bow. Nineteenth century bulk freight steamers generally carried three to four masts.

Steambarges were small, single-decked screw steamers with powerful engines and small cabins at the stern. They had raised poop decks. The pilothouse sat aft on the early steambarges. After 1880, it was placed on a raised forecastle with a well-deck between bow and stern. Most carried one to three masts. Steambarges were built for towing two or more laden barges while carrying a modest cargo of their own.

Bulk freight steamers on Lake Superior are significant as representatives of specific vessel types as well as sources of information on shipbuilding technology, marine engineering, maritime activity, and shipboard culture. The first bulk freighters were built around 1865 to carry lumber, but the basic design was adapted for "coarse freight" in 1869. The hybrid which resulted is entirely unique to the Great Lakes. They have played a key role in the development of Minnesota's agricultural and mining industries by providing a cost-effective system of transporting the state's grain and iron ore to lower Lakes markets.


Small Craft

Small Craft in the Minnesota waters of Lake Superior includes all types of working or pleasure craft less than 50 feet in length, regardless of vessel type or mode of propulsion. Craft types include canoes, rowing skiffs, "Mackinaw boats," yachts, ice boats, one-design yachts, steam and naptha boats, gasoline-powered cabin cruisers, and gas boats.

Canoes include birch canoes, as well as canoes of sturdy canvas.

Rowing Skiffs employed on the open Lake were primarily plank-built and flat-bottomed, of Scandinavian design. Clinker-built, round-bottomed skiffs were popular in the more protected waters.

"Mackinaw Boat" is a term applied loosely to a variety of small craft ranging from sloops to schooners and catketches, of 12 feet to more than 40 feet in length. Carvel-built or clinker-built, they could be double-ended or square-transomed, with lug or gaff rigs. On Lake Superior the most common variety was a clinker-built double-ender of about 30 feet with gaff schooner rig. Most were built of local cedar and pine.

Yachts, both sail and occasionally steam powered, were generally from 20 feet to 30 feet in length, though some were larger.

Ice Boats were built on skates to ride on the frozen lake.

One-design sailing yachts, 20 feet to over 40 feet in length, and classed according to standardized design and construction, were introduced onto the Lakes for amateur yacht racing.

Steam and naptha launches were generally open boats with awnings, ranging from 20 feet to 35 feet in length.

Gasoline-powered cabin cruisiers were factory-built and brought to Duluth by rail after the turn-of-the-century.

Gas-boats were locally-built commercial boats mounting gasline engines. They were generally 24-foot round-bottomed craft with a square transom stern and an open cockpit.

Small craft on Lake Superior are significant as representatives of specific vessel types, as well as sources of information on boat building technology, local commerce, maritime activity, commercial and recreational fishing practices and technology, and maritime culture. They are important to local subsistence, communication, transport, and development patterns. Various classes of small craft have played important roles in the settlement and exploitation of the North Shore. More recently, small craft have played an integral role in the North Shore's recreation industry. The decline of commercial fishing resulted in the disposal of many boats during the 1930s and 1940s. There are no known examples of fishing craft predating 1940 in Minnesota. These vernacular craft were of great importance to the region's growth and development, yet little is known about their design, construction, or use. There are no known examples of historic pleasure boats in the Minnesota waters of Lake Superior.


Adapted from the National Register's Multiple Property Documentation Form(MPDF) "Minnesota's Lake Superior Shipwrecks A.D. 1650-1945" by: Patrick Labadie, Brina J. Agranat and Scott Anfinson.


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