The photos are stunning. Haunting. Compelling. They are photos which lead you in, tempting you to explore…further, in a cold, underwater environment, some 265 feet below the surface of Lake Superior. These are, perhaps, the best photographs ever taken of “The Gunilda”, a ship that went down in 1911, over 100 years ago, in the Canadian waters of Lake Superior, near Rossport, Ontario.
Infosuperior was fortunate enough to talk to two people who dove the Gunilda this summer. A podcast, linked here, allows you to hear what it is like to carry out a dive to a beautiful wreck, in the deep waters of Superior. We’ll let Jitka Hanakova and Becky Kagan Schott tell their own story about diving the Gunilda. First though, a little background…
At 195 ft. in length, with a draft of 12 ft, the ship was actually a yacht. In fact, the Gunilda sailed under the burgee of the New York Yacht Club. It was built in Leith, Scotland in 1897 with a steam engine and a top speed of 12 knots. By any standards, the vessel was one of the foremost yachts in the world at the time, akin to what we would call a super yacht today. Indeed, the vessel had sailed many parts of the world, including the Caribean, and of course, the Great Lakes. The vessel was owned by William Harkness.
William Harkness, was born in Ohio in 1858 and died in 1919. William was a Yale University graduate and in 1896 inherited his father’s large share in Standard Oil, also moving from Cleveland to New York in the same year. William became a member of the New York Yacht Club and while the wreck of the Gunilda was a major loss, the family also had several other yachts, among them the 215 ft. Agawa, (later renamed the USS Cytheria) also the Wakiva 1 and 239′ Wakiva Two.
In 1911, Lake Superior fish stocks were strong and the population crash induced by factors like sea lamprey had not yet taken place. Rossport was a thriving fishing community with excellent shelter for vessels. The fishermen of Rossport owned economical, home-built, very sea-worthy vessels, patched together with materials at hand. The only purpose of such vessels was to “make them pay,” that is to bring home marketable fish. A vessel like the Gunilda, on a liesurely cruise of the Rossport area, would hardly have gone unnoticed and was likely a fascinating sight to the people of the village. Many villagers were deeply connected to the lake and dependent on vessels they’d built with their own hands to make a living.
The Gunilda wrecked on McGarvey Shoal, not far from the village of Rossport, near Copper and Wilson Islands. Today’s Canadian charts show 4 feet of water over McGarvey Shoal. The “Great Lakes Pilot” for Lake Superior, a book produced by the Candian Hydrographic Service, describes McGarvey Shoal as follows, “…less than 6 ft. over it, lying 4 cables north of Copper Island, is formed by large boulders. It has deep water about it with the exception of the southeast end, where the 27 ft. bank extends for a cable.” [a cable is one tenth of a nautical mile or approximately 600 ft./183 m.]
It is not known exactly why the vessel went aground on a summer’s day (August 11), 1911. Accounts provide no mention of rough seas or heavy winds and in fact boaters familiar with this area know the Rossport Islands as extremely scenic and also relatively protected. There would have been no shortage of locals more than willing to act as pilot. This would allow the added advantage of seeing this very large yacht first-hand, from the deck, as well as earning a little extra income.
It is known however, that Harkness chose not to hire a local pilot. Once on the rocks of McGarvey shoal, all passengers were brought to shore with a tug, leaving their belongings in their respective staterooms. All accounts provide no sense of panic and are almost serene in nature. A second tug would have been necessary to pull the ship off the rocks but it is well documented that Harkness chose not to pay for this assistance.
Initially resting on McGarvey shoal with the bow well up on the reef, the vessel slipped off the rock during salvage efforts, into about 270 ft. of water. The Harkness family contended the ship was worth about $132,000 dollars. They received $100,000 compensation from the ship’s insurer, Lloyds of London.
It’s not know whether Harkness was a gambling man, but whoever was in charge of the Gunilda was certainly gambling when they cut it so close to McGarvey Shoal. The situation may have been compounded when Harkness rejected paying for a second tug to assist with salvage. On the other hand, Harkness may have simply been someone who kept his money close, deciding not to hire either a pilot or a second tug. There is also speculation that U.S. charts of that time did not show the shoal, although it is a very prominent reef. Some have speculated that vanity may have entered the picture. Harkness, at the upper echolons of the Standard Oil Company, may have felt more than capable of managing his own vessel, without any help from local fishermen.
Many efforts were made to locate and dive to the Gunilda but it was not until 1967 that the first diver made it to the wreck. In a technical sense, the depth of the wreck put it at the very outer edges of diving capability at the time. In the seventies, Fred Bronelle, who founded Deep Diving Systems Inc. and eventually used a submersible to reach the wreck, headed up one of the best-known efforts to reach the Gunilda. His dive partner was King Hague, who is mentioned in the podcast. Jitka Hanakova and Becky Schott point out that although a dive to the Guilda is still a very serious endeavour, improved technology and methods now make diving the Gunilda both practical, and safe.
Special thanks to Jitka Hanakova and Becky Kagan Schott for agreeing to this interview.
Photos of the Gunilda by Jitka Hanakova (forward/back arrows upper right).
Becky Kagan Schott is associated with Liquid Productions.
Photos of the Gunilda by Becky Kagan Schott.
A Harkness family photo album was found by chance at a New York City flea market, years after the sinking of the “Gunilda.” The photo album was embossed with the word, “Gunilda” on the front cover. The album is full of high quality photos of life aboard ship as the Gunilda cruised the Western Hemisphere, from Martinique in the Caribean, to the East Coast, to the Great Lakes. The album conveys a sense of family and gracious, liesurely living aboard a beautiful yacht.
A browse through these photos of life aboard Gunilda during her extensive voyages is well worth it. The underwater photos of Jitka Hanakova and Becky Kagan Schott, of the same vessel, over 106 years later are also worth purusing. Enjoy.