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Great Lakes Historian
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Robert McGreevy

Marine Artist McGreevy Devotes Hours To Historical Detective Work


By James Donahue


Marine artist and researcher Robert McGreevy says he never lacks for interesting things to do. His lifelong interest in Great Lakes marine history and his ability as an artist with training in graphic engineering has been a key to opening the door to any man’s lifelong dream . . . turning a hobby into a successful business.


Thus McGreevy devotes his waking hours to Great Lakes history and shipwreck research. Not long ago he was working closely with marine museums, area divers and historical groups to create graphics that bring things that were, or things that cannot be seen, into public view.


The walls of his home are filled with paintings and drawings of many of the colorful vessels that once plied the Great Lakes. McGreevy has completed over 400 detailed paintings of historic ships that once traversed the Great Lakes.


We had the opportunity to meet McGreevy a few years ago at his Harbor Beach, Michigan home and talk with him about his work and see an amazing exhibit of artwork and artifacts from Great Lakes history. His home is a walking museum.


Classified as a realist, McGreevy’s work is so graphically detailed that some might think his images are color photographs of great ships of a bygone era. He pays great attention to the details of each vessel, scanning every photograph and even going to the scene of wrecks with divers, making sure measurements are correct.


He says he inherited his love of ships and the sea. His grandfather worked for the Harland Wolff shipyard in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and helped build the Titanic and other famous ships. His father also worked for Harland Wolff until the family moved to Detroit. There his father and an uncle were employed by Great Lakes Engineering Works while the Edmund Fitzgerald, yet another infamous shipwreck, was under construction.


McGreevy was awarded Historian of the Year by the Marine Historical Society of Detroit in 2004. His art has appeared in various magazines and books as well as several public broadcasting network and History Channel television documentaries. He also has been commissioned by the Great Lakes Historical Society at Whitefish Point and the NOAA Marine Sanctuary at Thunder Bay to do a series of paintings.


We believe the photograph of that appears with this story was taken by me when I did my interview at the McGreevy home in about 2001. It was first used with a story I wrote that appeared in the Huron County Press, the Harbor Beach Times and a chain of other weekly newspapers operating in the region that year. It has since found its way on the Internet and appears to be the official McGreevy picture when we search for images of him.


At the time we did that interview he was excited about the commissions he had just acquired to research three new projects. Two of them were shrouded in mystery and he was up to his elbows in research


One of those pictures was to be of the Cornelia Windiate, a 144-foot-long schooner that had just been discovered off Presque Isle in northern Lake Huron. The ship was found resting upright in about 200 feet of water. Its masts were still standing, the spars still in place, and divers who were visiting it found no reason for the vessel to have sunk.


“It’s got everybody puzzled,” he said. “The yawl boat is still tied to the stern. The tarps are still tied down over the hatch covers. It looks like it is still ready to sail.” Yet the indicate sailed off with her crew of nine sailors into eternity in 1875. The boat was carrying wheat from Milwaukee to Buffalo when it disappeared in December.


The cause of the Windiate’s sinking, the fate of the crew and why no effort was made to escape in the lifeboat were questions left unanswered at the time we talked to McGreevy. Since that interview the theory has emerged that the schooner got trapped in ice and the crew perished attempting to walk over the ice to shore.


The second mystery surrounding the sinking of the steamers Philadelphia and Albany following a collision off Point aux Barques in 1893, remains a mystery to this day. One of the lifeboats carrying crew members from the Philadelphia was found strangely smashed and overturned, and the sailors floating dead in the water. They left the sinking steamer together with a second life boat, and the men were rowing toward shore in fog but in calm seas. The theory has been suggested that the boat was hit by a passing freighter in the fog, and one vessel was known to have passed nearby that morning. But it could never be proven that it struck the life boat.


McGreevy also was attempting to solve another mystery about the Philadelphia. She was an iron ship and because of his background, the artist wanted to know how it was built. He said they did not use rivets. “So far we have found no clue about how it was constructed. This is a ship built with 1860s technology, back in the days of the Civil War when iron ships like the Monitor were going to war.”


Go to McGreevy’s web site to see some of his amazing artistry. Click Here



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