Divers uncover 1899 shipwreck in Great Lakes

Mar 21, 2018

The Margaret Olwill was on its way to Cleveland at the end of June 1899, carrying 900 tons of limestone and 12 passengers. 


Caught in a storm, the captain tried to make a turn and the ship rolled over on its side. The steam barge sank in Lake Erie off the coast of Lorain, Ohio.

The captain, his wife, their 9-year old son, and five others died. Four crew members survived.

Now, a group of Lake Erie divers has announced the discovery of the Olwill. Searching about 60 square miles of Lake Erie, Cleveland native Rob Ruetschle found the ship last summer, ending a 29-year effort. He says the wreck is intact.

A sidescan image of the Margaret Olwill
Credit Rob Ruetschle

“The bow and about 90 feet of it are above the silt and mud line, and then going towards the stern, it’s covered in a fine layer of mud and silt, and the engine is sticking up,” Ruetschle said.

Though he lives in California now, Ruetschle makes trips every year to dive Lake Erie with local group Cleveland Underwater Explorers, or CLUE.

CLUE work with the National Museum of the Great Lakes to locate and identify shipwrecks in Lake Erie. Chris Gillcrist, director of the museum in Toledo, Ohio, says the Olwill shipwreck including the loss of life and the family tragedy in the story makes it a complelling one.

“The fact that the survivors are described by the local newspaper in Cleveland at the time as ‘closer to dead than alive’ when they’re pulled from the water,” said Gillcrist. “It really illustrates the danger of the Great Lakes and in particular Lake Erie.”

CLUE and the museum have yet to identify two other shipwrecks discovered in 2016. 

Ruetschle says he’d like to dive the Olwill again to take more photos and do an in-depth archeological survey. “It’s more so the history and what took place at the time, and what caused the sinking – the story that’s involved.”