Freighter missing in Lake Huron since 1924 found

Charles E. Ramirez
The Detroit News


A renowned, local shipwreck hunter has found a freighter that was lost 93 years ago on Lake Huron. 

The S.S. Clifton disappeared in a storm while sailing from Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, to Detroit on Sept. 21, 1924. The wooden freighter was carrying a crew of 25 and a cargo of crushed stone. There were no survivors.

"The fact that she made it maybe 100 miles without anyone seeing her before she disappeared certainly made her one of the Great Lakes' enduring mysteries," said David Trotter, owner of shipwreck discovery and bottomland survey company Undersea Research Associates, said Friday. "Now we're able to share with people what the likelihood of what happened to her."

David Trotter, the leader of the team that discovered the Clifton, and the survey vessel they used.


The Canton Township resident has found more than 60 shipwrecks in the Great Lakes and in other bodies of water.

The Clifton is among the other Great Lake's historic shipwrecks, such as the Edmund Fitzgerald, the Carl Bradley and the Daniel J. Morrell. The Fitzgerald sank in Lake Superior and its whole crew of 29 was lost during a storm in November 1975. The Bradley sank in Lake Michigan along with most of its 35 member crew of during a storm in November 1958. The Morrell was lost on Lake Huron in November 1966, taking 28 of its 29 crew members with it.

"If you're familiar with the Great Lakes, you know it can be very, very brutal in the fall," Trotter said.

Given Lake Huron's whole surface is nearly 25,000 square miles and the U.S. side's surface is about 9,500 square miles, finding the Clifton appeared to be a daunting task.

"She had been last seen in northern Lake Huron and we found her about 100 miles away from where she was last seen," he said. "We were successful in finding her and identifying her last September but we had to wait until this summer to explore (the wreckage.) The fall doesn't give you a lot of time on the water."

Valerie van Heest, a member of the Michigan Shipwreck Research Association's board of directors, said the discovery is significant on a number of levels. The nonprofit group works to preserve and interpret Michigan's maritime history. 

"Discoveries like Clifton are particularly important discoveries, because everyone perished and there was little data to tell us where it went down," said Van Heest, an author and a shipwreck explorer with more than 25 years of experience. "Now the evidence is accessible and the answers can be put together."

This drawing shows the Clifton as she was discovered on the bottom of Lake Huron

She said she's also collaborated with Trotter on research in the past.

Trotter said it looks like the storm overwhelmed the vessel, caused her to turn over on her port side and then torpedo into the lake's bottom, based on visual inspection of the wreckage.  

"Our confirmation is the first 30-35 feet of her is largely destroyed from the impact with the bottom," Trotter said. "That tells us she went in almost nose first."

He said the steamship's propeller is intact. Its rudder is also straightforward, evidence the boat was moving in a straight line, according to Trotter.

"She probably got caught by a very large wave," he said. "She lies heavily on her port side, she's more than 45 degrees twisted over, another indication that she got caught broadside by a very large wave."

Built in 1892 as a steam-powered cargo ship called a whaleback, the Clifton was originally named the Samuel Mather and carried iron ore.

A drawing of the Clifton "fighting for her life" in the horrific storm that caused her to sink.

The ship had a 308-foot long keel, the central beam along its bottom. It also had rounded sides, giving it an appearance which gave its name. After three decades, the vessel was retrofitted to carry stone aggregate and renamed.

"It's a one of a kind," Trotter said. "It's a rare boat. They were sometimes called pig boats because of their snouts and a few of them were made into steamboats like this one."

One of the upgrades was self-unloading equipment, Trotter said. He said the machinery likely made the vessel less stable on stormy waters.

"It was added the same year she disappeared," he said. "All of it was additional weight above the center line of the vessel."

Van Heest said at the time, the technology was considered state of the art. She said the three ships outfitted with the system all sank.

Trotter said the discovery is a personal milestone for him.

"I have finally achieved something that I started back in 2002," he said. "When you set out on an objective like this, you have no idea whether you're going to accomplish it or live long enough to do it."