The Treasure Wreck Comet
By James Donahue
The Comet, now remembered as among the treasure wrecks on Lake Superior, was among the early Great
Lakes propeller-driven steamships built to carry bulk cargo. It and a sister-ship, the Rocket, were both launched at Cleveland,
Ohio, in 1857 and intended to serve as pure workhorses for the New York Central Railroad.
The Comet was small at 181-feet when compared to the giants that were to follow. Upper cabins for
passengers were added during the winter of 1859-60.
This ship lasted until sunk in a collision on Lake Superior in 1875. But during its years on the lakes,
it was involved in a series of serious accidents that might have labeled her a hard-luck boat by the men who walked the decks.
In 1865 the Comet went aground on a Lake Michigan reef off Port Washington, Wisconsin. Then in August,
1869 the ship rammed and sank the side wheel steamship Silver Spray near Port Huron, Michigan. Then in a second collision
later that same year, the Comet was sunk in the Detroit River after a collision with the propeller Hunter. The Hunter also
sank. Both steamers were salvaged and rebuilt.
The Comet was in its last and final collision the night of August 26, 1875, when it veered into the
path of the big steamship Manitoba off Whitefish Point, Lake Superior. The Manitoba struck on the port side about 25-feet
aft of the stem, cutting the Comet nearly in half. The ship sank in five minutes, taking 11 members of the 21-member crew
to the bottom with it.
The Comet was laden with 500 tns of pig iron, some copper ore, 54 sacks of wool and 70 tons of silver
ore. She was steaming from Marquette, Michigan to Cleveland, at the time it was lost.
Separate stories of the accident state it was caused by fog, or pilot error on a clear night. Shipwreck
historian Janice Gerred details pilot error that happened on a clear night. The captain, having received a report of a red
light on the approaching Canadian steamship, altered course in an attempt to avoid getting too close. But moments later the
green light of the approaching vessel appeared and Captain Dugat realized he had turned into the path of the other ship. He
blew a blast on the ship’s whistle and ordered a hard turn, but it was too late.
Survivors said the little wooden steamer literally crumbled in the crash. Two men were crushed to
death in the collision. One man was observed hanging from a window sash of the Manitoba, lost his grip and fell to his death.
Six sailors successfully jumped to the deck of the Manitoba. Other survivors were pulled from the water by the Manitoba’s
The wreck was hunted by salvagers, seeking to recover that lost silver ore ever since. The wreck was
finally located in July, 1980 in 230-feet of water by sport divers. By then, all of the cargo was protected by the Michigan
Department of Natural Resources and Environment. Artifacts from the wreck were carefully recovered and are on display at the
Great Lakes Shipwreck Society museum. But the silver ore mysteriously disappeared.