SS Onoko

The Onoko was an iron hulled Great Lakes freighter. She was launched in 1882 in Cleveland, Ohio as hull number #4, and sank on September 14, 1915 in Lake Superior near Knife River, Minnesota. The Onoko is thought to be the prototype for every single steel hulled Great Lakes Bulk carrier that ever sailed.[2][upper-alpha 1] These vessels made possible the cheap transport of bulk cargoes such as iron ore, coal and limestone. Her wreckage still remains on the bottom of Lake Superior and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1992.[4]

The Onoko prior to her sinking
 United States
Name: Onoko
  • Phillip Minch 1882-1895
  • Nicholas Transit Company 1895-1915
Port of registry:  United States
Builder: Globe Ironworks Company
Yard number: 4
Launched: February 16, 1882
Completed: 1882
In service: March 31, 1882
Out of service: September 15, 1915
Identification: U.S. Registry #155048
Fate: Sprang a leak and sank on Lake Superior with no loss of life
General characteristics
Class and type: Bulk Freighter
  • 2,164.42 GT
  • 1933.20 NT
Length: 302.6 ft (92.2 m)
Beam: 38.6 ft (11.8 m)
Height: 24.8 ft (7.6 m)
Installed power: 2 × Scotch marine boilers
Propulsion: Compound steam engine
Onoko (Bulk Freight Steamer) Shipwreck
Location6 miles south of Knife River
Nearest cityDuluth, Minnesota
Coordinates46°50.772′N 91°46.640′W
ArchitectGlobe Iron Works Company; William H. Radcliffe
Architectural styleFreighter
MPSMinnesota's Lake Superior Shipwrecks MPS
NRHP reference #92000845[1]
Added to NRHPJuly 23, 1992



The Onoko at the Great Northern Elevator in Superior, Wisconsin
A painting showing the Onoko's original rigging

The Onoko (Official number 155048) was built at Radcliffe's yard in Cleveland by the Globe Iron Works Company and was launched on February 16, 1882. She had a length of 302.6-feet, a beam of 38.6 feet and a height of 24.8-feet.[5][6] She was powered by a 900-horsepower compound steam engine and fueled by two Scotch marine boilers She was commissioned by Phillip Minch of Vermillion, Ohio for the Minch Transportation Company of the Kinsman Steamship Company and a syndicate of other investors.[7] The ship was built to take advantage of the 16-foot (4.9 m) channels opened in 1881 when the new Weitzel Lock was built at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan.[7]

The superintendent of the Onoko's construction was John H. Smith, who learned iron shipbuilding technology and techniques on the River Clyde in Scotland. Smith worked for the newly founded Globe Shipbuilding Company of Cleveland, Ohio, successors to an old and respected boiler and engine building company.[7]

On February 16, 1882 the day the Onoko was scheduled to be launched, about five thousand people came to watch the launching despite the rough weather conditions. With all the preparations completed Smith gave the launch signal at 3 p.m.. The ropes that were tied to the Onoko were cut at each end enabling her to slide into the water.[7] During the next few months the Onoko was outfitted and rigged. Although most of the vessel's machinery had been fitted before her launching, her masts at least were installed later. This was done by the Messrs, Upson, Walton & Company.[7]

Service history

On her maiden voyage the Onoko sailed from Cleveland on April 19, 1882 leaving port at 11 p.m. and arriving in Chicago around 2 p.m. the next day. She was carrying 2,536 tons of coal. The Onoko's captain, W.H. Pringle, said that the Onoko behaved splendidly and steered like a yacht. By April 25, the Onoko had been loaded with a cargo of wheat bound for Buffalo, New York and left at 3:30 p.m. She discharged 88,140 bushels of wheat at the Niagara B Elevator. Not a bit of the cargo was wet. It was thought that the Onoko could carry 115,000 to 120,000 bushels of wheat.[7] The Onoko's capacity to carry oats was believed to be at around 155,000 bushels. The Buffalo Courier provides an accurate account of when the Onoko arrived in Buffalo. It said that "About noon on Saturday the new iron steamer Onoko arrived here with something over 88,000 bushels wheat. She left Chicago last Tuesday at 4:20PM and her time in coming down was three days and nineteen and a half hours".[7]

On May 2, 1882 the writers of the Buffalo Courier wrote a rather unpleasant report about the looks of the Onoko:

The Onoko is the largest vessel afloat on the lakes - and by far the homeliest. She looks very like a huge canal boat with a smokestack and four sticks. Her model is really frightful; her upper works are without decent shape, and to cap all her painting is but a daub. For a new vessel she is the worst looking sight that ever appeared on our inland waters. She could have been given a respectable appearance without much interfering with her carrying qualities. One of these days we will show those Cleveland fellows an iron steamer that will be worth looking at. The Onoko is an eye-sore.[7]

The Buffalo Courier criticizing the appearance of the Onoko didn't go down with her owners. On May 5, 1882 the Cleveland Herald responded to the accusations with this reply:

The Buffalo papers took occasion when the steamship Onoko was there a few days ago to speak disparagingly of her qualities, especially her homeliness, and wound up by calling her an "eye-sore." This is ridiculous, in view of late developments. A Buffalo party has been in this city the past few days negotiating with the owners of the Onoko with a view to her purchase. He was anxious to secure her, "eye-sore" and all, at a price considerably above the cost of building. There was a disposition on the part of some of her owners to accept his terms, but the others would not part with their interest, and the arrangement fell through. The owners are well satisfied with the way the boat works.[7]

The Onoko had proved herself to be a success in her first two years of carrying bulk cargoes on the Great Lakes. On August 22, 1884 the Cleveland Herald reported that the Onoko had "proved even more successful than her owners hoped for".[7]

In 1895 two of the Onoko's mast were removed, her wooded forecastle was replaced with a steel deck and steel pilothouse structure. In 1896 she had her boilers replaced with two 12 x 12.5 foot Scotch marine boilers.[7] On May 16, 1896 the Onoko collided with the schooner Mary D. Ayer in heavy fog on Lake Michigan. Five sailors on the Ayer died.[8] The Onoko's wooden spar deck was replaced with steel in 1901. Later that year the principal owners of the Onoko, the Nicholas Transportation Company, bought out all the lesser stockholders to become sole owner of the Onoko. The Onoko had steel aft cabins installed in 1907 through 1908.[7]

In 1910, Captain Harry Stewart was appointed as the master of the Onoko. On the night of December 1, 1910 the Onoko ran aground on Southeast Shoal during a snow storm 60 miles below Amherstburg, between Point Pelee and Wheatley, Ontario. She was released with three tugs, including the Harding and the Rescue were sent to rescue the Onoko.[7] She was carrying coal at the time. On December 2, 1910 the Duluth Herald wrote an article saying the Onoko was not in any serious danger. The tugs succeeded in refloating her without serious damage to her hull. On October 7, 1912 the Onoko sprang a leak and was intentionally beached in the Apostle Islands. The cost to patch her hull was minimal.[7]

Final voyage

A series of images of the Onoko's sinking taken by an unidentified deckhand on the Renown

In early September, 1915, the Onoko grounded while departing a grain elevator in Duluth, but freed herself and cleared the harbor safely. It is thought that this is what caused the leak that sank her a few days later.[9]

On September 15, 1915 the Onoko departed Duluth, Minnesota with 110.000 bushels of wheat bound for Toledo, Ohio. She sprang a major leak off Knife Island about 15 miles from Duluth, Minnesota. On September 15, 1915 the Duluth Herald wrote an article saying:

All went well and the sea was smooth, when while on the regular course, about nine miles off Knife island, the engineer, J.J. Higgins, reported to the master, Capt. W.R. Dunn, that the vessel had sprung a leak under the engines and that the water was coming in fast. When Capt. Dunn went back to investigate, the water was spurting in and in a few minutes drowned out the fire. The captain saw that the situation was hopeless and ordered out the boats. All of the crew including the one woman on board, Mrs. C.R. Cranbee, wife of the steward, and the lone passenger, Antone Rehor, a cement contractor of Cleveland, had no trouble reaching the boats and safety, and in a few minutes the steamer, her stern having filled rapidly, tossed her nose in the air and plunged stern first to the bottom.[9]

The boats were at a safe distance and the members of the crew were not worried for, before they left the ship, they saw the steamer Renown, a tanker belonging to the Standard Oil company, which had left Duluth shortly after the Onoko, coming on full speed, the master of the tanker having noticed that the Onoko was settling. In a few minutes the Renown, with barge C in tow, came up and picked up the occupants of the lifeboats. The Renown put about and took the crew back to Duluth, being met just outside the Duluth canal by a tug, which took the Onoko crew off, the Renown and her tow resuming their journey down the lakes.[9][3][10]

The Onoko today

The wreck of the Onoko was discovered on April 10, 1988 by Jerry Eliason of Scanlon, Minnesota and Kraig Smith of Rice Lake, Wisconsin after they conducted a thorough search using a depth finder. Her wreck rests upside down in 220-feet of water with her stern buried almost completely in mud. Her hull is broken nearly in two, with the split in her hull right in front of her boilers. Her wreck is surrounded with a lot of artifacts from inside and outside her hull. Her cargo of grain is still in her cargo hold. It is illegal to remove artifacts from her wreck without permission because she is protected by the State of Minnesota.



  1. According to the Minnesota Historical Society; the Globe firm and its successor, the American Shipbuilding Company, and built thousands of iron and steel ships in Cleveland and subsidiary shipyards at several Great Lakes and salt-water ports. The Minch and Steinbrenner families, who owned shares in the Onoko, later owned the American Shipbuilding Company as well. From a technological standpoint, the Onoko was probably the most important ship among the literally thousands of hulls built by the American Shipbuilding Company.[3]


  1. "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. July 9, 2010.
  2. "Onoko, Statement of Significance". Minnesota Historical Society. Retrieved 6 April 2018.
  3. "History of Onoko". Superior Trips. Retrieved 8 February 2018.
  4. "Lake Superior Shipwrecks: Onoko". Minnesota Historical Society. Retrieved 6 February 2018.
  5. "Onoko". Great Lakes Vessel History. Retrieved 6 February 2018.
  6. "Onoko". Bowling Green State University. Retrieved 6 February 2018.
  7. "Onoko, Construction and Career". Minnesota Historical Society.
  8. "Onoko: Lost on Lake Superior 100 Years Ago". Mariners Weather Log. Retrieved 8 February 2018.
  9. "Onoko Shipwreck-Description of the Wreck Event". Minnesota Historical Society. Retrieved 8 February 2018.
  10. "SS Onoko (+1915)". Wrecksite. Retrieved 8 February 2018.
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