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By Becky Vargo - Grand Haven Tribune
Low lake levels this fall resulted in the exposure of at least five shipwreck hulks along the edges of Harbor Island. Michigan Shipwreck Research Associates was called in to survey and identify the vessels, in particular, the largest located just east of the public launch ramp on the island.
On Friday, MSRA director and historian Valerie Van Heest, teamed up with Kenneth Pott, a maritime archaeologist and director of the Tri-Cities historical Museum to survey the larger wreck.
Study of the hull construction, exposed propeller shaft cradle at the stern and exposed sides of the vessel led them to initially conclude that the vessel was a large steamer 40 feet wide and at least 165 feet in length, though an additional amount forward toward the bow end appeared buried.
Van Heest and Pott worked with historian William Lafferty, of Lafferty van Heest and Associates, who narrowed it down to two possibilities: the 185-foot L. L. Barth abandoned at Grand Haven in 1927 or a significantly larger vessel, the 290-foot Aurora, burned in 1932.
A survey east of the visible portions of the wreck conducted by Valerie and Jack Van Heest, Craig Rich and Larry Hatcher of MSRA on Sunday, revealed a structure well over 200 feet long, and led Van Heest to conclude that the vessel is the Aurora.
“The Aurora was a very significant ship when built in 1887,” Van Heest indicated, “and it’s thrilling to be able to study its remains now.”
When launched by the Murphy and Miller of Cleveland in late-July that year, the 290-foot, steam-driven propeller was the largest and most powerfully built wooden vessel on the Great Lakes.
The 3,000-ton vessel was initially owned by John Corrigan of the Aurora Mining Company of Milwaukee which paid $150,000 for its construction. It was used to ship iron ore from the Gogebic Range Ironwood, Michigan, to Cleveland and coal from Cleveland on the return trip.
“Not only did the length lead to our likely identification of the vessel, but the visible portions of the hull framing supported that notion as well.” Pott said.
According to records detailing its build, the Aurora was constructed with Kentucky oak. Frames were spaced on 21” centers 18 inches wide.
Iron straps 5” wide by ¼” thick were hot riveted into the hull and bent around the turn of the bilge. The firm Bassett & Presley, of Cleveland, supplied the iron.
At the time of the Aurora’s build, ironed-hull ships were still in their infancy. The technology of using iron straps allowed the builders to fabricate this immense ship with wood.