Thunder Bay

Mystery deepens around historic tugboat sunk near Thunder Bay

The mystery surrounding the whereabouts of the historic tugboat Mary Ann — the first ship registered in Canada — has deepened.

Shipwreck found near Welcome Islands three years ago likely not that of historic tug, archaeologist says

The Canadian tugboat Mary Ann was registered in 1867, and scuttled in the 1930s. (Supplied)

The mystery surrounding the whereabouts of the historic tugboat Mary Ann — the first ship registered in Canada — has deepened.

Divers thought they found the wreck of the fabled ship three years ago, near the Welcome Islands, in Lake Superior, off the shore of Thunder Bay, Ont. 

But now, an archaeologist has completed a survey of the wreck, and has determined it's most likely not that of the Mary Ann.

"We were going over historic photographs of the [Mary Ann], and some of the structural features of the shipwreck don't match up with those historical photographs," said Chris McEvoy, a research archaeologist at Lakehead University who works with the Superior chapter of Save Ontario Shipwrecks.

"One example is the stem of the vessel," he said. "The very, very front has a different ... look to it than we've seen on historical images."

"Vessels, they can change a little bit over time — they can be built up, torn town, built up again, but the issue is, a lot of these changes, they can't occur without really changing the overall structure of the vessel," McEvoy said. "I'm 95-99 per cent confident that it's not the Mary Ann."

Chris McEvoy's survey of this wreck is part of a larger effort by the Superior chapter of Save Ontario Shipwrecks to promote dive tourism in the region. (Chris McEvoy)

The wreck in question was discovered by divers David Shepherd and Robert Valley in 2013.

"We were supposed to be dropped on a different wreck," Shepherd recalled. "Instead of hitting at 90 feet, I hit a deck at 55 feet. At first I was thinking 'something's wrong here,' and then I was excited."

The ship's profile led the divers to believe the ship was the Mary Ann, which was registered in 1867, Shepherd said.

"We always went with the available evidence at the time," he said.

McEvoy is working to determine the identity of the wreck discovered by Shepherd and Valley.

"I'm going over a list of shipwrecks in the area," McEvoy said. "I know it is likely a tug, also. It is of similar size to the Mary Ann, and it is of similar age."

Shepherd said there are still parts of the mystery wreck that haven't been examined.

"There's an aft cabin which has yet to be explored," he said. "In the front, there is a foredeck and an aft deck which are still intact."

"Due to close [confinement] and needing speciality training to go into them, we haven't really explored them that much," Shepherd said. "We're going to start looking at getting some people in there, and we might find that missing piece to fully identify what this wreck truly is."

An important discovery

Regardless of the ship's identity, the wreck, Shepherd said, is still an important discovery.

"It's a really, really neat wreck," he said. "It adds a lot to the local dive tourism."

"It's clear, there are no nets on it, it's in the open, and it's a nice clay bottom all around it," Shepherd said. "It's a beautiful wreck to dive on."

So, if the Mary Ann isn't sitting in 55 feet of water near the Welcome Islands, where is she?

One possibility is the ship graveyard located between the Welcome Islands and the Sleeping Giant, which includes more than a dozen wrecks.

"It is very deep, it is very dark, and it is very, very dirty water," he said. "When they did harbour cleanups in the 1930s, they took a lot of derelict vessels out there and just sunk them."

All the reports he's seen indicate the Mary Ann is not among those wrecks, said Shepherd. However, McEvoy pointed out that not all of the ships in the graveyard have been identified.

In any case, Shepherd said, the silver lining is that the Mary Ann is still out there, somewhere, waiting to be discovered.

"To me, it's the adventure of diving something new," Shepherd said. "The Mary Ann's still out there. That's the cool part."

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