This expedition actually started 15 years ago. Some friends of mine, Gary and Mo Bonzell, left Milwaukee and opened a resort on Lake Superior in Ontonagon called “Superior Shores”. On one occasion, while visiting, Sherrie and I brought the dive gear along and did an exploratory dive straight out from their resort, just to see what we could see. After a frigid 45 minute dive following the bottom due North, we only hit a maximum depth of 9 feet. There was nothing to see, but sand and a few scattered rocks. I mentioned to the Bonzells that if they heard about a wreck or anything of interest in the area, to keep me posted.
About a year and a half later I got a Christmas card from them with a note scrawled on the back from Gary saying he may have found a wreck for me to dive. I called him immediately. After the usual pleasantries, I asked where the new mystery wreck was and he said he wasn’t exactly sure, but with some recent storms this past November, parts of one had washed up on shore near by. After further discussion we made arrangements to come up and visit, until then he promised to chat with the other locals to find out anything he could about the exact location or identity of the wreck.
In 1994 Sherrie and I again drove to Ontonagon. Gary had found out the wreck was somewhere near the mouth of the Mineral River about a mile from the resort. We drove to where the river crossed under the highway and found a dirt access road that led to the mouth of the river. After carefully navigating our way over a driftwood logjam, we finally found our way to Lake Superior. As we walked down the beach we came upon several local kids swimming in the river. “None of you would happen to know where there is a shipwreck around here would you?” I grinned. One boy jumped up, “Yes, I know right where it is.” He pointed across the river out into the lake. “Do you see what looks like an old wooden pier sticking out above the water at the edge of the river wash?” “Yes” I answered. “That’s it.” he replied “No kidding,” I laughed.
Soon I had the dive gear out and was carrying it all down the beach. After fording it all across the river, Sherrie helped me suit up while the kids hung out and observed the spectacle. The camera and the gear impressed them as they had never seen any in real life. I, on the other hand, felt like Jacques Cousteau and described to them how everything worked. Being that this was going to probably be a shallow dive and with all the effort in hauling my gear to the site, Sherrie opted not to dive and to tend from shore. Suited up, with camera and dive flag in hand, I started hiking out to the wreck. While still knee deep in the water my tank suddenly slipped out of the BC and hung behind me by the air hose. I turned around and signaled to Sherrie for help and as the kids watched, here was Jacques Cousteau on his hands and knees getting splashed in the face repeatedly by waves while his wife puts his gear back together. So much for looking professional.
Once again ready to go, I started wading out to the wreck. The water in the area was very cold and so shallow that by the time I became chest deep, I was already at the wreck. I dropped down and shot video of the underwater portions of this more or less pile of lumber. I left the wreck and explored roughly a 100 foot perimeter around it searching for something more to shoot, but found nothing more in the area. Even though I only hit a maximum depth of 8 feet I did get some OK video. Back at home in Milwaukee I realized I never took any above water video or stills of the wreck.
Later in 1997 I took a course on research diving and underwater archeology from David Cooper, Dick Boyd, Greg Kent and Janet Defnet. During one of the breaks, I started chatting with another student and mentioned the difficulty I was having cross checking databases for the unknown wreck in Ontonagon. The divers name was Brendon Baillod. He said, “Let me look it up when I get home and I’ll let you know what I can find out about it for you”. Little did I know at the time what an expert Shipwreck Historian Brendon was. A week later he sent me this letter:
Here's the info. you requested on the Panama. It is an excerpt from an
upcoming book of mine. I hope you enjoy it. As far as the database you
used, it could have been anyone's. There are a number of people who
have massive computerized wreck databases with good info. I've
personally swapped databases with several people and gotten back
databases like the one you described. If I can be of any additional
help, please let me know. I'd be very interested in knowing the
location of any hulls you may have found in and around Ontonagon.
Please email and let me know if you've dived or heard of any.
The Panama was a wooden hulled bulk freighter launched on May 19, 1888
at Trenton, Michigan as the John Craig. She was built by John Craig &
Son at the Linn & Craig Shipyard as hull #34 and was enrolled with US
official number 76729. She could carry 2044 gt., 1596 nt., and was
275.0 x 41.6 x 20.4 ft. She was powered by a triple expansion steam
engine with cylinders of 19, 30 and 52 inches diameter and a 40 inch
stroke. She could generate 900 hp and her 2 Scotch boilers had a steam
pressure of 160 pounds. She was driven by a single screw propeller.
She carried 2 masts and 1 smokestack and had a small cabin on her deck
amidships. Photos of this vessel exist both as the John Craig and as
As the John Craig, she was severely damaged when she fetched up on
Simmons Reef in Green Bay, Lake Michigan on June 25, 1903. She was
recovered with considerable effort and rebuilt in 1904, receiving the
new name Panama. She was owned by the Davidson Steamship Company.
On November 21, 1906, she was upbound off the Keweenaw Peninsula with a
cargo of coal and the barge Matanzas in tow when she was assaulted by a
vicious storm. The added hull stress began to open her seams and she
began to admit water to her hold. As she neared Ontonagon, the water
she had been taking on began to overwhelm her pumps. When it appeared
that she might founder, her master, Captain Jones ordered that she be
run aground. At full speed, she was plowed ashore at the mouth of the
Mineral River some 14 miles west of Ontonagon where the waves began to
pound her on the rocks. The crew was forced to abandon her in their
yawls, and rowed ashore where they had to camp out in the woods until
the weather abated. Her barge Matanzas had been cut loose and was able
to anchor off shore. The Matanzas was towed into Ontonagon by the
fishing tug The Tramp, but the Panama proved to badly damaged to
repair. The waves had broken her amidships and spilled much of her coal
cargo into the water. With her cargo, she was an insurance casualty of
In subsequent years, a team of salvors removed her boilers and engine as
well as some of her coal cargo and any fittings or hardware of value.
Her recovered boiler and engines were placed in one of the Davidson
Steamship Company’s new vessels built at Buffalo, New York in 1907.
Lumber and other materials were later scavenged from her remains by
beachcombers and most of her remains then settled to the lake bottom.
More recently, groups of sport divers stripped her of any remaining
brass and most other artifacts. She is now protected from illegal
salvage by state law as she is a historic wrecksite.
Her remains lie just off the mouth of the Mineral River in 5 - 20 feet
of water and are completely broken. Her ribs and keel remain along with
battered sections of hull and some machinery. She is still a very
interesting dive, and some of her remains are visible from shore. She
lies at LAT/LON 46.50.17’/89.32.89’ and is easily accessible as a
shoredive. Because there are few other wrecks in the area, she is
Lake Superior Shipwrecks - Wolff
Great Lakes Bulk Carriers - Devendorf
Milwaukee Public Library - Runge File
Dave Swayze Wrecklist
Great Lakes Shipwreck Research Milwaukee, Wisconsin "
Back to the present…
On June 28th of this year. We found ourselves again at the north shore of Upper Michigan. Our initial goal was to scope out a hiking area near a hydro dam at the mouth of the Montreal River and a rumored Indian graveyard in the woods near “Little Girls Point”. After photographing both areas and removing several wood ticks from my socks and ankles, I suggested a quick stop in Ontonagon to shoot the above water shots of the Panama that I missed the last time. The road we took near the Mineral River years ago was now somebody’s driveway. A house was built on the lakefront where I suited up in 1994. Not wanting to trespass; we drove down the road quite a way before finding another place to access the lake. It was then only a fifteen-minute jog on the beach with my camera back to the Mineral River and the above water shots I took that are posted below near the bottom ….