The Robert Wallace Shipwreck Site
The Robert Wallace lies upright and relatively intact in 240 feet of water 7 miles from Knife River in the general proximity of the Onoko, Theano, and Benjamin Noble. The visibility on site is rarely good. We have seen it range from 40 ft to 4 ft, but probably averages 10 to 15 ft. Although far from being totally intact it is the most intact Minnesota Great Lakes wooden bulk freighter. It was carrying iron ore when it sank. Like most wooden ships that sank with a dense cargo like iron ore or iron rails, the cargo caused the hull to split either during the sinking or when she hit the bottom.
A perspective image of the Robert Wallace wreck site. Image created by Ken Merryman
Although the history says the Wallace sank stern first, which would seem to make sense given the cause of the sinking was supposedly that the stern split, the bow is the most damaged. It was split and separated an additional 35 feet from the original dimensions. Although upright it appears the port side has separated from the bottom of the ship starting at about the engine near the stern with the gap widening toward the bow. The two sides of the stem (bow) are separated by 35 to 40 ft so it is rare to be able to see from one side to the other. The iron ore has spilled out of the bow and now buries the anchors and some of the bow machinery. The stocks of the anchors barely protrude from the ore pile by more than a foot on the port side near the stem. The bell lies off the starboard side still mounted on a spar and underneath it a pedestal of clay carved by the lake currents. The forecastle deck rests vertically off the port side weighted down by the anchor windlass which is partially buried in the ore. The stem post which extended from the keel to the bitt portion above deck lies horizontally across the split between the two sides of the stem and can be used in low visibility to swim from the starboard side to the forecastle deck then back to the port side.
Site Map of the Robert Wallace wreck site. Image created by Ken Merryman
The weather deck amid ship is gone, but the row of stanchions down the centerline of the ship is still standing. Both broken masts lie across the ship, the aft or mizzen mast is just forward of the metal boiler cabin where the deck becomes intact again. The stern cabins are gone, but the deck from the mast to stern is relatively intact. The steel boiler cabin is badly twisted but intact. The engine of course is upright and you can drop down below decks on the port side to peer back into the tool room. The name on the fantail is visible as is the name on the forward sides of the bow although barely legible on any of the locations.
Although from a tech diving point of view the 240 foot depth is not prohibitive the low visibility and silt can make it a challenging dive. There is also a surprising amount of current in this part of the lake which often pulls the submerged buoys to deeper water. There are two submerged buoys on the wreck – one on the bow and one on the stern tied to the engine with floats at 30 ft below the surface. If you dive this wreck please use the buoys if possible to minimize anchor damage to the wreck. The Robert Wallace was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2009 which establishes it as a property of the State of Minnesota and protected by Minnesota laws. Those of us that dove the wreck before you left the artifacts for you to see. Please do the same for the next diver.
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