Brief History of Thomas Wilson

The Thomas Wilson (U.S. Registry 145616) is an example of a unique design of Great Lakes Freighter called a Whaleback.    It was 308 ft long, 24 feet in depth and 38 feet in beam and was designed and built locally in Superior, Wisconsin at the McDougall Shipyards in 1892.  Captain Alexander McDougall owned the shipyard and designed this unusual class of freighter.   The wooden cabins were built on a deck supported by large vertical steel cylinders or turrets.  Although the cabins are now gone there is still machinery and some furnishings inside the turrets -- three on the stern and one on the bow.

The outbound Thomas Wilson sank June 7, 1902 after a collision with the inbound wooden steamer George Hadley about 3/4 mile from the Duluth Entry.  With a full load of Mesabi iron ore in her hold the Wilson sank within 3 minutes taking nine of her 20 crew with her.  The Hadley limped to the beach and was later salvaged. 

The Thomas Wilson now lies in about 70 ft of water with much of the hull buried in the silt.  The mid section where the collision occurred is quite broken-up, but the bow and stern are somewhat intact.  The broken-up cargo hold coupled with highly variable visibility make it difficult to navigate between the bow and stern.  Visibility varies from Braille diving to 50 feet on a good year, but probably averages around 15 feet. Most of the photos on the right were taken in the 2006 drought year when the visibility was exceptional.  Lately there has been a school of Ruff in its holds and we are seeing a Zebra mussel infestation starting, so it is hard to say how long the wreck will remain clear of the mussel coating.  It is something GLSPS has been monitoring for several years.  The stern of the ship slopes down toward the stern tip of the hull where it is buried (I don't think you would call the stern of a whaleback a fantail).  If you go into the lower stern cabins you are likely under the lake bottom, and much of the stern cabin volume is now filled with silt.  The engine room and boiler room can be penetrated, but there is much silt in them so practice your anti-silting techniques.  There are also a number of overhanging areas around the cargo holds where the hull is torn and a diver can swim into the wreck unknowingly in low visibility.

Although the cabin walls have collapsed the bow section is open on the cargo hold side and can be easily penetrated.  The anchor windlass is in the bow turret, which is a tight squeeze to get in the door.  The anchors were both salvaged for the museum years ago.

For a more details on the Wilson construction,  history, and site description including historic photos go to the Minnesota Historic Society's Thomas Wilson Site

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