Intern looking at Pewabic

ALPENA – The wreck of the Pewabic in August 1865 is one of the most famous in Thunder Bay, not only for the many past salvage attempts to obtain portions of its cargo, but for the incredible loss of life from its collision. The names and number of passengers on Pewabic are unknown, due to the loss of the only manifest when the steamer sank, which adds to the mystery of her story.

This unfinished story of the Pewabic has captured the interest of Phil Hartmeyer, a graduate student from East Carolina University studying maritime archaeology. Hartmeyer currently is working as an intern at the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary to perform a closer study on the Pewabic and the materials recovered from the various salvage attempts. Hartmeyer hopes to use materials and accounts of the wreck to piece together missing parts of the ship’s story.

“I talked to the staff at the sanctuary about writing a thesis on the Pewabic, and it ended up turning into a material culture study and history,” Hartmeyer said. “It was a boat designed to fit through the Soo Locks. It could carry passengers to come see the frontier and experience the wilderness of the Keweenaw, but it also functioned in a different sense, being able to bring back copper from these mines. Transportation in those days, the 1860s, was difficult, and that was the biggest problem for these mines. It wasn’t the fact that there wasn’t any copper there, it was the troubles of getting it south, so boats like Pewabic were specifically developed to ‘double dip’ economically into the copper industry and transportation and took people up to Lake Superior.”

The material culture history associated with Pewabic is very rich due to the many different types of artifacts that have been salvaged over the years. Artifacts from the passenger trade, tourism, the copper industry and the fledgling mines that were looking for ships like Pewabic to come to their docks and unload so they could cash in at the mineral markets in Detroit were all aboard the Pewabic when it sank, but many have been removed from the wreckage.

The Civil War saw a huge demand in copper for military reasons and the biggest exports around that time were coal, iron ore and copper. The Keweenaw ended up supplying a lot of these raw materials that helped the North win the Civil War Hartmeyer said.

“You had boats like Pewabic that were sort of rushing around to meet the needs of these copper mines, to meet the economic needs of the market, but also to take 100-125 people on a cruise to see a fantasy land. People had no idea what to expect of the Great White North,” Hartmeyer said. “And that’s truly what it was, the great northern frontier … it had the same draw and mystery as the Western frontier.”

The sinking of the Pewabic is attributed to a practice common in the 1860s, where boats would exchange information, news, and packages between passengers while passing at dangerously close quarters. The Meteor, Pewabic’s sister ship, was heading north past Pewabic. The steamers came together to exchange news and the Pewabic suddenly veered, crossing the bow of the Meteor, which ripped a 10 foot hole approximately 30 feet aft of the bow on the port side of the Pewabic. The steamer is said to have sunk in five minutes with most of its passengers aboard.

“There are some personal survivor accounts, some are true, and others are questionable,” Hartmeyer said. “I want to talk to anyone who has a Pewabic story or an artifact from the steamer.”

Hartmeyer is looking to the community to help him fill the gaps in the personal culture of the Pewabic.

“The Pewabic offered passengers an elegant tourist excursion,” he said. “It was a real treat to cruise on the steamer. The artifacts have helped illustrate and personalize the wreck.”

Hartmeyer’s study started through the state’s collection housed at the sanctuary, and he is planning an expedition to the wreck site to have a closer look at the construction of the steamer and it’s machinery later this summer.

“I’m trying to find as much information and history and material objects salvaged from the Pewabic as possible,” Hartmeyer said. “We learn more about the story through these artifacts.”

Hartmeyer is asking for the help of community members with artifacts or accounts from the Pewabic to contact him via email at or call him at 1 (925) 286-9648 with any information.

.Nicole Grulke can be reached via email at or by phone at 358-5687. Follow Nicole on Twitter @ng_alpenanews