Shipwreck: ONOKO

Skip Gillham Vineland, Ontario, Canada


ONOKO courtesy: Historical Collections of the Great Lakes

ONOKO: Lost on Lake Superior 100 Years Ago

The iron-hulled bulk freighter ONOKO was built at Cleveland, Ohio, by the Globe Iron Works. It was launched at their shipyard on Feb. 16, 1882, and was hailed as the first ore boat of this type on the Great Lakes and, at 302 ft, in overall length, the largest ship to ever ply the inland seas to that date.

ONOKO was built for the fleet of Philip Minch and was soon an active carrier setting new standards for cargo transportation. The ship sailed for Chicago on April 19, 1882 and loaded 2,536 tons of coal there for a Lake Superior port. There the ship took on about 88,000 bushels of wheat for Buffalo.

As late as 1887, ONOKO was still setting records with a load of 3,048 tons of iron ore moving through the Soo Locks in a single trip. It also had the largest cargo through these same locks in 1888 but the tonnage was down to only 2,849 for that trip.

Tragedy, due to heavy fog on Lake Michigan off Racine, WI on May 16, 1896, led to a collision between ONOKO and the schooner MARY D. AYER. Five sailors in the smaller boat perished.

A change in the corporate organization of the company placed ONOKO under the banner of the Kinsman Transit Co. in 1905. The ship was transferred to this newly organized fleet and remained in their service for another decade.

A grounding in a snowstorm off Southeast Shoal while carrying coal across Lake Erie, between Point Pelee and Wheatley, ON, on Dec. 1, 1910, interrupted end of year service but the ship was refloated with the aid of three tugs and resumed trading.

On Sept. 15, 1915, ONOKO foundered in Lake Superior, off Knife Island, about 17 miles west of Duluth, MN. It went down stern first in a space of 35 minutes. On board for this final trip was a cargo of 110,000 bushels of wheat that had been consigned to a storage elevator at Toledo, OH.


ONOKO sinking, as photographed by an unidentified seaman on the Standard Oil Tanker, RENOWN, Sep. 15, 1915; Institute for Great Lakes Research archives, Bowling Green State University

The explanation for the loss is that one of the hull plates had worked loose and simply dropped off while heading down the lake. The ship had been briefly aground earlier in the month and the suspicion was this weakened one of the plates beneath the engine room.

Water rushed in unabated and the crew abandoned their doomed vessel to the lifeboats before it sank in an initially reported 340 ft of water. The loss of the ship and its cargo was noted at $160,000.

Fortunately, the tanker RENOWN was nearby and the alert Captain had correctly assessed the situation, turned his ship, and came back to assist. The Standard Oil tanker crew was able to rescue the drifting sailors.

The remains of ONOKO were found in 1987. The ship actually rests in only 207 ft of water and is upside down. The hull is broken in two near the stern. This once historic ship remains where it landed a century ago this past fall after a most unusual accident on Lake Superior.


1920 painting showing port side profile as originally rigged; Institute for Great Lakes Research archives, Bowling Green State University

Special thanks: Images courtesy of Historical Collections of the Great Lakes, Bowling Green State University
Additional information regarding the ONOKO is available at:

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