The Great Lakes have had enough strange and tragic shipwrecks to fill a museum — The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at the Whitefish Point Light Station in Michigan – but few disappeared so quickly, mysteriously and completely as the S.S. Clifton did on September 21, 1924, in Lake Huron. Only a few pieces of wreckage were ever found to confirm that the Clifton had indeed gone down, but for 93 years it has defied the best of the Great Lakes shipwreck hunters looking for its crew, its hull and the reason for its demise.
“The S.S. Clifton has been on many wreck hunter’s bucket lists ever since she vanished in 1924,. Of the remaining shipwrecks left to find in the Great Lakes, the Clifton would easily be number one.”
Scratch the name “S.S. Clifton” off of your bucket list. The Detroit Free Press reports that David Trotter — Great Lake’s shipwreck discoverer, deep diver, author and owner of Undersea Research Associates – ended his own 15-year search when members of his dive team discovered a wreck that turned out to be the Clifton – a mysterious 100 miles south from where experts had long speculated it sank.
The S.S. Clifton was a wooden, steam-powered cargo ship called a whaleback that was built in 1892 to haul iron ore under the name ‘Samuel Mather’, the wealthy Cleveland owner of the Pickands Mather shipping and iron mining company which dominated Great Lakes shipping for decades. Around 1923, it was retrofitted with new-at-the-time topside self-unloading equipment and changed to a stone-hauler with the name S.S. Clifton.
The ship had a short life under its new name. On the night of September 21-22, 1924, it was caught in a severe storm and sank with its crew of 25 and load of stone. While the new name was not cursed, the new equipment may have been. Along with the Clifton, the other two ships that received it also sank.
Trotter says his crew discovered the wreck on September 24th, 2016, but kept it quiet until they could confirm its identity when the waters were clearer. During the summer months of 2017, they made nine separate expeditions to examine and film its interior and exterior.
“The bow of the Clifton sustained heavy damage. 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 wreckage made apparent the cause of its sinking – and it wasn’t mechanical failure. The propeller was intact and the rudder was straightforward, indicating it was traveling in a straight line. Trotter believes the ship was hit broadside by a large wave, but something prevented it from righting itself.
“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.”
Debris from the sinking, including the stone cargo spilling onto the lake bed, made exploring difficult, but the divers were able to find signage and an unopened suitcase. Nothing has been brought back from the wreck except the video, but Trotter plans to return and attempt to retrieve the suitcase and other artifacts.
Will the ship finally get a song like the Edmund Fitzgerald? What rhymes with Clifton?