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September 14, 1915: The Onoko Sinks in Lake Superior

On this day on Lake Superior in 1915 the freighter Onoko, a thirty-three year veteran of the great lakes, sank nine miles off Knife Island, about sixteen miles from Duluth. At roughly 10:30 a.m. the ship’s engineer noticed a leak below the engines. The water quickly drowned the engine fires and the captain recognized the situation as hopeless, ordering his crew and two passengers into lifeboats; all survived, picked up by the steamer Renown of the Standard Oil Company, which brought them all back to Duluth. Within forty-five minutes of the first report of the leak, the vessel was resting on the bottom of Lake Superior. The Onoko had spent the winter in dry dock, where it was extensively repaired. On her last, fateful trip, the ship was loaded with 110,000 bushels of wheat she had loaded at Duluth’s Capital Elevators; it was destined for England—the grain was to feed allied troops battling Germany. The Duluth News Tribune reported that George Woodman, whose Cleveland firm was handling the grain consignment, said he regarded the sinking as suspicious—perhaps a work of sabotage by “sympathizers of the Teutonic allies.” But inspectors and dock workers in Duluth disagreed: It was much more likely that an old plate had rusted and was vibrated loose by the ship’s engines, allowing the water in; some said the Onoko was leaking before she even left Duluth.

The Onoko. (Image: Great Lakes Vessel Index.)