Lost Lake Erie: Steamships and Shipwrecks

From triumph to tragedy, get a closer look at some of Lake Erie's most fascinating vessels.

Steamships puffed across Lake Erie from the early 1800s to the mid 1960s. These grand “palace steamers” carried a wide variety of passengers from poor immigrants to wealthy tourists and were floating vessels of triumph and tragedy.

Some steamship wrecks lie under the waters of Lake Erie, a reminder of tragic fires that often occurred on board. The G.P. Griffith caught fire and sank off the shore of modern-day Willowick, Ohio, in 1850 and, due to the large loss of nearly 300 passengers’ lives, is still ranked among the worst shipwrecks on the Great Lakes. However, the tragedy led to changes in steamship safety standards, which likely prevented future wrecks.

Still, steamships were often a source of pride and wonder. In 1901, the SS Tashmoo and SS City of Erie raced each other in what was dubbed the “grandest steamboat race in history.” It all started with a wager. Tashmoo challenged any ship that thought it could beat it to a $1,000 bet. City of Erie accepted the challenge. Tashmoo was the front runner and even had a Detroit Free Press reporter riding aboard to cover the race. 

City of Erie may have been the underdog, but it was prepared and removed unnecessary items to cut back on wind resistance. For four hours and 19 minutes the steamships raced from Cleveland to Erie, Pennsylvania, and in the last moments of the race City of Erie crossed the finish line, just 45 seconds before Tashmoo!.

Many still have fond memories of riding aboard the SS Aquarama in the 1950s and ’60s as it carried up to 2,500 passengers at a time between Detroit and Cleveland. 

However, Aquarama’s deep water hull design threw a large wake that could rip docks from boardwalks and deluge fishing boats and, although it was popular it wasn’t profitable, which let to its ultimate demise.


We knew that, when writing about shipwrecks, David VanZandt, was the person to turn to. Tragically, VanZandt died on June 1 during a diving expedition, shortly after we spoke with him. To honor his love of adventure and many accomplishments, we decided to go forward with the interview below. VanZandt was a consulting engineer for NASA who learned to dive while on an assignment in Cape Canaveral, Florida. He started exploring shipwrecks there — most of which were sunk to form artificial reefs — and returned to Ohio with an interest in doing the same. VanZandt was the co-founder and director of Cleveland Underwater Explorers, a nonprofit organization dedicated to finding the shipwrecks at the bottom of Lake Erie. He discovered about 50 of them during his lifetime. Read more about his legacy on page 4.

What Lies Beneath: VanZandt estimated there are between 400 and 450 shipwrecks at the bottom of Lake Erie. VanZandt noted that many sunken ships were refloated, or towed to shore and repaired.

Florida Foundation: VanZandt was glad that he gained experience diving in Florida. “The water’s warm and clear, and it’s a great place to hone your skills, as opposed to Lake Erie, where visibility is sometimes zero and you’re wearing 10 layers to try to keep warm. You have to be pretty experienced to dive some of the wrecks in Lake Erie … you’d have to have at least 100 dives in. You have to learn to move cautiously and have good buoyancy control.”

On Visibility: “The water comes down through the Detroit River and dumps into the western basin of Lake Erie, which is only 30 feet deep on average. All the sediment settles here. In the central basin, around Cleveland, average visibility is 5-10 feet on a good day. On a bad day, it’s zero.”

Brrrrr: Even as a shallow lake, the water gets cold in Lake Erie. It might be 70 degrees at its warmest, and below the thermocline — the line between shallow sun-warmed water and deeper water where the temperature noticeably changes — it can get below 50 degrees. Sometimes, it’s not much above freezing, VanZandt said.

The Mystery of Lake Erie: Marquette & Bessemer No. 2. sunk on the lake in 1909 between Conneaut, Ohio, and Port Stanley, Ontario. The wreck’s never been found. “It’s everyone’s white whale, but there’s not enough information out there to narrow the search down to a couple hundred square miles,” VanZandt said.