Exploration

Documentary filmmakers find 1895 steamship wreck in Lake Huron

Yvonne Drebert and Zach Melnick set out to make a documentary about invasive quagga mussels in the Great Lakes. Along the way, they found the wreck of what is likely the steamship Africa, last seen on a stormy October night in 1895.

  • Published Oct 06, 2023
  • Updated Jun 21, 2024
  • 2,988 words
  • 12 minutes
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On a Saturday afternoon in June 2023, Yvonne Drebert and Zach Melnick set out on their boat from a launch near their home in Larsen Cove, Ont., a tiny community on the shore of Lake Huron.

They were joined by two friends and a dog. The group had planned a casual day on the water, catching up and checking out an unusual bump on the lake’s bottom.

Drebert and Melnick, a married pair of documentary filmmakers, were working on a film about quagga mussels in the Great Lakes. A source at the United States Geological Survey had told them that scientists had recently spotted a mound on the otherwise flat bottom of Lake Huron. Everyone on board figured the anomaly was probably rocks, but they were curious all the same.

When their boat neared the location given to them by their source, Drebert pushed a 25-kilogram robot into the water and watched it disappear under the surface. Melnick steered the robot deeper into the water, controlling it from a console attached to a tether made of fibre-optic cable through which the robot would send images from the depths below.

Inside the boat’s cabin, Melnick stared at a screen, scanning the visuals coming from the robot. Over a headset, he gave Drebert a play-by-play.

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Yvonne Drebert and Zach Melnick

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“Surprise, surprise,” he said. “We have mussels.”

“Shocking,” she muttered. She started to wonder if they should call it a day. The waters were getting choppy, and their guests were starting to feel seasick.

Then, over the headset, Melnick swore. “Oh my God,” he said. “It’s a shipwreck.”

Eighty-five metres below their boat sat a large wooden ship, in waters so crystal clear that the image on screen looked like a toy ship preserved in a bottle. The ship was almost perfectly intact—with one catch.

Over every part of its exterior, the distinctive yellow-brown-black shells of quagga mussels formed a solid crust, including over the stern where the boat should have borne her name. Half-sunk into the sand nearby lay a ceramic teacup, without so much as a crack.

The boaters didn’t know it then, but they were looking at a ship whose whereabouts have been a mystery for the last 127 years.

A view of the mystery shipwreck from the bow. The wreck is completely encrusted in quagga mussels. (Photo: Inspired Planet Productions)
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The view from the ROV console during the discovery of the wreck. (Photo: Inspired Planet Productions)
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The Bruce Peninsula, also known as the Saugeen Peninsula, juts north out of Owen Sound on the southeastern shore of Lake Huron. It’s a 100-kilometre-long, 38-kilometre-wide barrier of cliffs and clay, sandbars and forests, villages and national parks. Such is its size that the peninsula nearly splits Lake Huron in two, separating Georgian Bay on its eastern shore from the lake’s main basin on its west. This is the traditional territory of the Saugeen Ojibway Nation, and includes the Chippewas of Saugeen First Nation and the Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation.

After 1848, when the first settlers arrived in the area, the waters surrounding this chunk of land grew busy with ships ferrying humans and freight. Vessels moved between new settlements like Collingwood and Midland and Sarnia, gateway to the St. Clair River and the booming industrial cities of the United States. But travel on this inland freshwater sea was risky business. Ships were not always well-maintained and sometimes overloaded with cargo — a combination that put crews at risk when gales swept over the lake, as they often did. The ships were staffed largely by people of British and Irish origin and the poor, whose names are sometimes missing from official records. In stormy seasons, ships disappeared with alarming frequency. All souls on board were lost forever, their fate a mystery to their grieving families. In tribute, the communities of the region often adopted the names of captains or their ships: Larsen Cove, Severn, Silversides Point.

Patrick Folkes, a marine historian and author of Shipwrecks of the Saugeen, estimates that a minimum of 100 ships went down off the coast of the Saugeen alone between 1848 and 1930. Somewhere between 40 to 50 ships have never been located, identified or studied. Many were battered to bits. “Sometimes the only clue [that a ship had been lost] was when bodies or wreckage washed ashore,” he says.

The last intact ship discovered in the region was the Jane Miller, a package-and-passenger steamer that disappeared in a blizzard near Wiarton, Ont. in 1881. American ship hunters found her in 2017 after scanning the area with sonar.

A handful of wrecks are believed to lie intact in Lake Huron’s depths, still bearing the remains of their cargo and the humans who travelled on them and hidden from all but the fish — until now.

Zach Melnick, left, and Yvonne Drebert with their underwater robotic camera unit. High school sweethearts, the pair make documentary films about the environment, including a forthcoming project on invasive mussels in the Great Lakes. (Photo: Inspired Planet Productions)
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Drebert and Melnick started dating in high school in Cayuga, Ont. and moved to the Saugeen Peninsula in 2017. They’ve been together for 23 years. Married for half of those years and colleagues for most of them, the couple jump in and out of each other’s sentences. Drebert gets a kick out of the way her husband talks to the fish that show up on screen as their robot scans the underwater world: It’s cool, guys. I’m just going to hang, he’ll coo into his monitor.

Their documentary company, Inspired Planet Productions, makes films about the environment and science. In 2021, after finishing a 17-part series for TVO about Canadian biospheres, they decided to shift their focus to what was happening in the water in front of their home.

The Great Lakes are experiencing massive ecological upheaval, in large part thanks to invasive species like the quagga mussel and its fingernail-sized cousin, the zebra mussel.

The mollusks, native to lakes in southern Russia and Ukraine, found their way into Canadian waters via the ballast tanks of ships, which hold water to stabilize the vessel when it is carrying little to no cargo. Once the ship arrives in port, it dumps its load of ballast water, releasing non-native organisms into the local environment.

A single female quagga mussel releases up to a million eggs each spawning season, although most do not survive. Even so, once the mussel arrived in the Great Lakes, it spread quickly, forming vast underwater colonies. They feed by filtering phytoplankton and other microscopic particles out of the water; each two-centimetre-long mussel clears up to a litre of water per day. These invaders are so plentiful in Lake Huron that they’ve depleted the plankton upon which native species also rely, with cascading effects up the food chain. 

An extreme closeup of quagga mussels. Each two-centimetre-long mussel can filter up to a litre of water per day. (Photo: Inspired Planet Productions)
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“It certainly had some dramatic influences on absolutely everything that’s going on in the lake. We see the effects of that every single day,” says Ryan Lauzon, Fisheries Management Biologist for the Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation. The quaggas are such efficient filter-feeders that they have cleaned the water of everything that impedes visibility. As a result, sunlight penetrates more deeply into the water and gives life to algae called cladophora. These are now growing more plentifully and coat the nets of fishers, who are trying to catch dwindling numbers of fish. Species that previously thrived on plankton are struggling to survive. “It’s become so difficult to make a living from fishing that most individuals have had to get out of it,” says Lauzon.

The mussels are also destroying human infrastructure. A quagga mussel will lie flush to a surface and then anchor itself using strands of protein known as byssal threads. The mussels do this layer by layer, building on top of each other until thousands of individuals are squeezed into the same square metre of space.

When Drebert and Melnick decided to film the quagga mussels, they invested in a high-end cinematic remotely operated vehicle, or robot, made by New Zealand’s Boxfish Robotics. The robot can travel underwater and record high-quality images in the now-crystalline waters of the Great Lakes. Because the robot moves with fish-like motion, real fish allow the device to trail after them and feed information back to the filmmakers about spawning, food sources and habitat. Drebert and Melnick then pass this footage on to scientists, who use it to study the quaggas’ effect. (Drebert received a grant from the Trebek Initiative to facilitate this research.)

Their work has allowed them to witness events rarely seen, like lake whitefish spawning and different species of young fish hanging out on the lake’s bottom.

But the pair never expected to find a missing steamship.

Quagga mussels encrusting the bow of the wreck. (Photo: Inspired Planet Productions)
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The question on everyone’s mind was: who was she?

Googling, Drebert and Melnick quickly narrowed the field to three ships: the Eclipse, last seen in 1883; the Africa, sunk in 1895; and the Saturn, lost in 1901. They reached out to anyone who could tell them what to do when you’ve found a mystery ship at the bottom of a lake. They brought Folkes, the historian, on board, along with Scarlett Janusas, a marine archeologist. Janusas helped them register the wreck as an archeological site, which protects it from scavenging or looting. Anyone who tampers with the site could now face a fine of up to $1 million or imprisonment for up to a year.

One way to confirm the ship’s identity would be to clear the mussels covering her name. But any effort to scrape away the mussels would rip the wood to pieces; as the mollusks settled on the downed ship, they hooked their filaments onto its surface. Cleaning the mussels would change the ship’s natural exterior, violating the Ontario Heritage Act under which it is now protected.

Drebert and Melnick returned to the wreck site a few weeks after they first spotted the ship and picked out more details. Pieces of coal sat in the silt beside the ship, remnants of her cargo. Her measurements, even under a coating of mussels, suggested a vessel of unusually long length—perhaps as long as 45 metres.

The Africa in her glory days as a passenger ship. (Photo: Historical Collections of the Great Lakes, Bowling Green State University)
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Only one ship fit the bill: the Africa, which disappeared while carrying coal from the United States into Canada. Much of what is known about that fateful trip comes from newspaper reports at the time and a 1997 booklet, “Shipwrecked on the Bruce Coast,” by Gerry Ouderkirk.

The Africa was built in Kingston, Ont., in 1873 as a passenger ship at a cost of $37,000 in gold. She measured 41 metres from bow to stern and had two decks and impressive staterooms— “comparing favorably to the finest passenger boats afloat,” raved a Toledo newspaper. For 14 years, she shuttled 35 to 40 passengers at a time between Montreal and places like Chicago, Toledo and Owen Sound. She’d sometimes race other passenger ships. That ended when she was struck by near-disaster in 1886 while moored in Owen Sound. She burst into flames—likely from an explosion, causes unknown—and burned down “to the water’s edge,” according to Ouderkirk’s history. Instead of being decommissioned, she was sold and rebuilt as a steam barge to carry cargo. Builders added an extra four metres to her length and demolished her passenger cabins, making more space on deck for hauling lumber and coal.

For nine years, she chugged along the waters of Lake Huron with her load, often with another ship in tow. On Oct. 5, 1895, the Africa left Ashtabula, Ohio for Owen Sound, with the schooner Severn in tow and carrying 1,270 tons of coal between them. On board were 10 crew, plus the captain, Hans Larsen, a 20-year veteran of the Great Lakes—the same Larsen for whom Larsen Cove, the home of Drebert and Melnick, is named. The crew included chief engineer Mathew Hayes, second engineer Edward Forest and cook Miss Lizzie Lee of Toronto; wheelsman William Mann, who’d moved from Nova Scotia to Toronto with his brother, James, a mate on the Severn; mate William Anderson of Owen Sound, wheelsman James King of Oakville, and four unidentified men working as fire men or deck hands.

Following a disastrous fire, the Africa was sold and converted into a cargo barge, hauling coal and other freight on Lake Huron. (Photo: Historical Collections of the Great Lakes, Bowling Green State University)
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A side view of the wreck’s cabins. (Photo: Inspired Planet Productions)
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Two days later, the ships hit a windstorm in the late afternoon off the Saugeen Peninsula. Around 4 p.m., Larsen came out on deck to take in some linen that he’d put out to dry. The wind grew fiercer, and even brought snow. The gale ripped the Severn’s sails to shreds, and by 7 p.m., both vessels were in serious trouble. Larsen made the call for the Africa to release the Severn from her tow line. “Capt. Larsen either thought that we were sinking, or his vessel was foundering,” the Severn’s captain, James Silversides, told a local newspaper days after the storm. “I think it was the latter, because he is a grand fellow, and would never have deserted us if he thought we were in a bad way.”

The sky began to turn inky with night. The Severn was rolling heavily. Her crew worked furiously to keep her afloat. In the dark, they could just make out the Africa’s bobbing outline about half a mile away. On each ship, a Mann brother was trying to save his own life by keeping his vessel afloat, while worrying about his brother doing the same nearby.

Hans Larsen, captain of the Africa, with his wife Jane Alexandra Larsen, year unknown. (Photo courtesy Doug Inkster)
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Then, the Africa disappeared. “That was the last we saw of her,” Silversides said. His own ship struck a reef a few hours later. The crew dropped into the hold and started a fire on the coals, trying in vain to warm themselves in the cold and wet. Relief arrived early the next day and the crew of the Severn were saved.

The Africa was never seen again. The Severn’s crew found a bundle of letters belonging to the cook, Miss Lee, and the Africa’s lifeboat, but it did not have a drop of water inside it. “No one had ever been in her,” Silversides said. “I tell you that I have passed through some bad weather during my thirty-five years’ sailing, but that experience upon Lake Huron is as bad as any. Captain Larsen was a splendid fellow to sail with, and he did all he could in this case to prevent what happened.”

Several days later, two bodies were found. The remains of Forest were discovered by fishermen; he was wearing a life preserver which carried the name of the Africa. His father came to collect his body. The lighthouse keeper on Lyal Island found King, easily identified by his tattoo—“J. King”—on his arm. He was wearing only an undershirt, and his head was bruised. He’d been on watch on deck that night; Silversides believed that King had tried save himself by swimming to shore in the freezing waters.

Debris from the Africa appeared episodically for nearly a year after the wreck. A trunk belonging to Hayes, the chief engineer, washed up, containing clothing and a bundle of letters from his daughter. Letters from Larsen’s wife and son, which he’d kept in his desk, were discovered, along with his hat and the cook’s trunk. The following summer, three more bodies were found in different places along the coast: those of Larsen; Anderson, a married father with two young children; and another who was buried without ever being identified.

Among the unidentified crew members aboard the Africa was a man named Peter Brady, who lived with his uncle, steamboat engineer Patrick Quinn, at 11 Coatsworth St., Toronto. Brady was not on the ship’s crew list, but was later reported as crew in a Toronto World newspaper story about the sinking. His name is not included in the 1891 census, suggesting he was a recent immigrant to Canada, says Folkes.

The unidentified body could also have been that of a man called Richard Brennan, who is listed as being from Sarnia in Ouderkirk’s book. He’d shipped out on the Africa in September. His family had received a letter from him days before the wreck, saying he was embarking on what would be his last trip. He’d get off at Sarnia if the Africa stopped there, or he would quit at Owen Sound. He never made it to either. 

Human remains are likely still on board the Africa, perhaps in the engine room where they are beyond view, says Folkes. Without any obvious sign of human remains, the wreck cannot formally be declared a gravesite. The missing bodies of several of her crew—in death as in life—remain undocumented.

Canadian Geographic has agreed not to reveal the exact location of the Africa. Her finders fear the site will become an attraction to divers and ship hunters who may interfere with the final resting place of her crew.

“It’s a human tragedy; those lives were lost,” says Folkes. “I always think of those poor sailors. They had pretty tough lives and ended up getting drowned in Lake Huron.”

The Africa shipwreck in Lake Huron. (Video courtesy Inspired Planet Productions)

For shipwrecks off the Saugeen, the quagga mussel is a blessing and a curse, says Janusas, the marine archeologist. They’ve improved underwater visibility, making shipwrecks easier to find. But the mussels have also encrusted everything, making accurate measurements nearly impossible and accelerating the destruction of artifacts under the water. “It’s a good and bad scenario,” she says.

Drebert and Melnick plan to release their documentary, All Too Clear, next year. They ask that anyone who may have had an ancestor on board the Africa in 1895 get in touch with them through their website at alltooclearfilm.com.

They are almost 100 per cent certain that this shipwreck is the Africa. The only way to confirm is hidden under tens of thousands of mussels. What they do know is that they have located a time capsule, one that preserves a moment in 1895, but is rapidly being destroyed by the ecosystem changes of the present.

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