On September 21st, 1924, the steamship S.S. Clifton left Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, carrying a load of stone to Detroit, Michigan. The freighter was seen passing through the Straits of Mackinac at 10:20 a.m., and was last seen by a tug boat on upper Lake Huron that evening.
A gale came up, sweeping across the lake. The storm was violent and unrelenting.
The S.S. Clifton would founder, taking with it the lives of all 28 sailors on board.
Three days later, when the S.S. Clifton didn’t arrive in Detroit as scheduled, a thorough search of the Lake Huron coast line – from Oscoda (near Alpena) to Port Huron – had failed to reveal any trace of the missing ship.
Eventually, wreckage from the S.S. Clifton, began drifting ashore on the Canadian side of Lake Huron, indicating that the whaleback freighter sank.
Also, the fact that no bodies floated ashore told investigators that the S.S. Clifton sank very quickly and that the sailors had no time to get off the ship, or launch lifeboats.
The exact cause of her sinking was never determined, and her final resting place at the bottom of Lake Huron has remained a mystery for nearly a century.
“The S.S. Clifton has been on many wreck hunter’s bucket lists ever since she vanished in 1924,” said David Trotter, renowned Great Lake’s shipwreck discoverer, deep diver, author and owner of Undersea Research Associates. “Of the remaining shipwrecks left to find in the Great Lakes, the Clifton would easily be number one.”
Trotter has spent the last 40 years searching for and discovering Great Lake’s shipwrecks. Many of his discoveries have been recognized worldwide as some of the most important historical and archeological findings in Great Lakes maritime history.
Some of Trotter’s discoveries include the sidewheel steamer Keystone State, which sank with all hands in 1861; the four-masted schooner, Minnedosa, which sank with all hands in 1905; and the 436-foot steamship Hydrus, which was lost on Laker Huron during the great storm of 1913.
But the S.S. Clifton had eluded him, just like it had eluded all the wreck hunters before him.
“I started searching for the Clifton in 1987,“ said Trotter. “We were searching mostly in the northern part of Lake Huron near her last reported sighting in 1924.”
While Trotter searched for the Clifton, he would find many other shipwrecks along the way, so his endless side-scanning of the lake bottom wasn’t futile.
“Lake Huron has 9,500 square miles on the U.S. side, and if you also add the Canadian side, that’s a grand total of 25,000 square miles,” said Trotter. “That means there’s an awful lot of water out there to go looking for a given ship that was barely over 300-feet long.
“The description of her loss was so oblique as to possibilities that you knew you had a tremendous area to cover.
“It’s just a matter of whether you start in the right area first or you end up in the right area last.”
Trotter ended up in the "right area" in the summer of 2016.
“Myself and my team of technical divers were working on another project in June of 2016,” said Trotter. “We discovered and identified two schooners - the Venus and the Minnedosa – which were lost in 1887 and 1905, respectively.
“On our last day of survey, we hooked another target. We logged the coordinates of that target, but decided at the time to put it aside because we wanted to focus exclusively on the two newly discovered schooners.”
On Sept. 24, 2016, Trotter and his dive team decided they wanted to make a quick dive on the target they discovered three months prior. When the divers surfaced, Trotter happened to be videotaping, and one of the divers said, “Dave, there’s a whaleback down there.”
Trotter responded by saying, “You have to be kidding me; that has to be the Clifton!”
Although the visibility wasn’t great, the divers managed to use GoPros and capture some footage of the shipwreck, which Trotter then scrutinized before he officially identified the shipwreck as the long-lost S.S. Clifton.
“The Clifton was the only whaleback ship left in Lake Huron that hadn’t already been found,” said Trotter. “There was no question we had found the Clifton.”
Trotter was stunned to learn that the Clifton had traveled 100 miles south of where many shipwreck hunters believed she had met her demise.
“Last sightings are not necessarily confirmation of where an event happened, and that couldn’t be more true than in this particular case,” added Trotter.
Trotter decided to stay quiet about his Clifton discovery because he wanted to get his dive team back out to the wreck site during the 2017 summer months to further investigate and document the Clifton.
“We made nine separate expeditions out to the Clifton wreck site, during July and August,” said Trotter. “The visibility is much better at that depth during the summer months, so we could capture far better footage, in addition to really exploring the vessel, both inside and out.
“Finding the Clifton is one part of solving the mystery. The other part is attempting to understand what happened to this ship in her final moments that caused her to sink.”
On a day in early July, when the surface of Lake Huron was calm, Trotter and his experienced team of divers made their way back out to the Clifton wreck site. Five divers, each using mixed-gas, descended below the surface and slowly made their way down to the wreck.
“The bow of the Clifton sustained heavy damage,” said Trotter, after having seen footage shot by the divers. “The first 40 feet of the bow section is completely destroyed, likely caused by the impact with the lake’s bottom when she sank.
“The Clifton lays over on her port side at about a 45-degree angle.
“The turrets are still well in tact at the stern.
“We found that the self-unloading mechanism was still in position, and that was an interesting discovery because we now realize that the unloading mechanism didn’t break free, causing the Clifton to have instability, resulting in her sinking.
“We explored the ship’s rudder, and it was interesting to us that it was continuing to be straight forward, causing us to conclude that the Clifton continued under power as she torpedoed to the bottom of Lake Huron.
“Our divers were able to enter the stern section of the Clifton, weaving their way with great skill through the engine room, where they documented tremendous amounts of debris.
“We looked for a reason that might have caused her sinking from a mechanical standpoint, but we didn’t see one.
“The divers were able to look at many of the original items inside the ship that were still intact, like the paneling and architecture.
“The cargo hatches were all open on the ship, which caused all the stone and aggregate that the Clifton was hauling, to spill all out onto the floor of Lake Huron.
“Divers also came across signage inside the ship, and also saw an unopened suitcase, but due to the large amount of debris, they couldn’t reach the suitcase.”
To this day, Trotter can’t believe that he found the S.S. Clifton by accident.
“The only whaleback steamer that was lost in Lake Huron was the Clifton, and her disappearance has been one of the Great Lakes’ greatest mysteries,” said Trotter. “Historical records will validate much of the information we have pulled up from the wreck, and will provide historians new primary source information about this shipwreck.”
Trotter plans to continue to venture out to the Clifton site and send his divers down to do more documentation.
“We want to continue exploring the engine room and the cabin structure at the stern,” added Trotter. “We also would like to retrieve the suitcase, if possible, bring it up and see what may be inside.”
Other than the mysterious loss of Le Griffon, Robert Cavelier de La Salle's ship that was lost somewhere on the Great Lakes in 1679, Trotter strongly believes that the discovery of the S.S. Clifton is the next best thing, when you consider the few remaining legendary shipwrecks that are yet to be found in the Great Lakes.
“The Clifton is one of the last mysteries on the lakes,” said Trotter. “We’ve managed to solve it.”
David Trotter travels the state of Michigan doing presentations and symposiums about his shipwreck hunting career. If you’re interested in booking him for an upcoming event, he can be reached at: DLTrotter@msn.com
Following is the list of the crew, given out by the Progress Steamship company, Cleveland, owners of the boat:
EMMETT GALLAGHER, captain, St. James, Mich.
WALTER J. OERTLING, chief engineer, Sturgeon Bay, Wis.
EDWARD L. PECK, first mate, Green Bay, Wis.
A. P. McDONOUGH, second mate, New York
JOE SEHELD, wheelsman, St. James, Mich.
PETER BURNS, wheelsman, St. James, Mich.
HARVEY JENSEN, watchman, Sawyer, Wis.
LEO BROWER, watchman, Sturgeon Bay, Wis.
SAM STEVENSON, cook, Benton Harbor, Mich.
EMIL J. BONNETT, assistant cook, Detroit
JOHN HAMILTON, assistant cook, Detroit
C. H. DILLER, porter, Detroit
J. E. SULLIVAN, first assistant engineer, Mitchell, S. D.
BERNARD HAEN, oiler, Sturgeon Bay
ROLAND WRITT, oiler, Escanaba, Mich.
KENNETH DOREY, handyman, Manitowoc, Wis.
RUSSELL ERDMAN, oiler, Sturgeon Bay
L. SHEPLEY, coal passer, Sturgeon Bay
P. CANTY, Toledo, Ohio
EDWARD MILLER, fireman, Detroit
GEORGE MAPLES, conveyor operator, Sturgeon Bay
PEARL PURDY, conveyor operator, Sturgeon Bay
A. J. OLSON, deck hand, South Chicago, Ill.
BERNARD SODERSTROM, deck hand, Washburn, Wis.
GEORGE HUSACK, deck hand, Sturgeon Bay
STANLEY GUTH, deck hand, Sturgeon Bay