The Hidden Treasure of Rossport: Nearly 111 Years of the Gunilda
Lake Superior ~ McGarvey Shoal ~ the Gunilda By Kaitlin Kenny
ROSSPORT, ONTARIO ~~~~~~~ January 4, 2022 (LSNews) Barely 1 m (3 ft) beside McGarvey Shoal and 81 m (266 ft) under Lake Superior’s waves, a gilded treasure awaits those brave enough to face it. Its haunting allure has attracted divers from around the world — but its beauty is matched only by its danger. Two divers heard its calls and plunged into the depths, never to be returned alive.
But what is the hidden treasure of Rossport? It carries the name of Gunilda, a luxury yacht lost on August 31, 1911, due to a series of increasingly poor choices.
“Prestigious and [the] best-preserved [shipwreck]” are the words the Cousteau Society, founded by famed explorer Jacques Cousteau, used to describe the Gunilda. It was a wreck rumoured to be so well-preserved that the gold paint still shimmered.
In 1980, the Cousteau Society visited Northwestern Ontario in order to set their diving saucer SP-350 Denise in the water, and to prepare to see how well the Great Lakes preserve shipwrecks. After the descent, the society was stunned, especially Cousteau’s son, Jean-Michel Cousteau.
“In terms of quality,” said Jean-Michel Cousteau to Maclean’s, “the Gunilda is one of the most surprising and incredible sights we have witnessed within the Great Lakes.”
For expert Gunilda diver Terry Irvine, he notes that while the wreck is beautiful and almost familiar, it also gives him the “heebie jeebies.”
“You just get that uncomfortable feeling,” he says. “Everything’s running fine, but you just get that uneasy feeling.”
With over 20 years of experience diving the Gunilda, Irvine knows the yacht well, from the risks of each dive to its alluring riches.
The wreck stands upright and proud, captivating and dangerous. After nearly 111 years underwater, many wrecks would be in poor condition. But as Lake Superior is near freezing and freshwater, the Gunilda has escaped this fate for now.
At 81 m (266 ft) underwater, the wreck is accessible only to those with specific technical training — and those prepared to face its perilous nature.
Its bowsprit, intricately carved from wood and painted with gold leaf, serves as a testament to the turn of the century, luxurious 1897 build. Its feathered design — soft, classical, and yet slightly delicate — remains nearly as brilliant as it was almost 111 years ago. At the wreck’s depth, any sunlight has faded, but shining an underwater light reveals the elegance and care taken to create the Gunilda.
Out of the original two masts, only one remains attached, jutting out from the mass and helping guide divers to the treasure underneath. Before sinking, a bright mast light perched itself on top, but the electrical wires once lining the inside are now water damaged, snapped and frayed.
Nearby, the muddy maroon funnel has slumped over onto its side, with the steam whistle facing the watery, darkened skies. Like with the rest of the yacht, a layer of thick, fuzzy muck blankets both.
Whether caused by the chaos of the sinking or by slamming onto the bottom of the lake, the decks rest in disarray. Two lifeboats near the helm are tossed around haphazardly, but still cling to the wreck, and a refreshment cart lays toppled.
In contrast, both notched forest green wheels remain intact, and the engine order telegraph remains unbroken, seemingly awaiting the next command. Nearby, an electric searchlight even has its metal plaque legible: J. H. Holmes & Co.
At one time, the Gunilda’s bell rested half-buried in some mud. However, an anonymous diver made the plunge around 2008, retrieving it from Lake Superior’s cold, muddy embrace. Instead of bringing it to the surface above, though, they carefully replaced it on the nearby bell hook.
The outdoor walkways remain for divers to swim through. Some of the doors are closed, while others are open, allowing for a glimpse inside.
One of the intact skylights once enabled the sunlight to flood into the main salon, but now allows the dampened illumination from waterproof lights to dazzle divers. Inside, a dangling light hangs loosely, softly swaying as divers swim by.
Like many of the Gunilda’s rooms, the main salon is a sight of slight disarray — more likely from the sinking than the passengers’ and crew’s escape. Tables and chairs, some flipped upside down, are scattered, yet unbroken.
Despite the chaos, there are still glimmers of beauty. The unbroken mirrors are still reflective enough to catch a glimpse of any divers brave enough to venture closer, and a grand piano in the main salon is propped open. Once responsible for filling the interior with beautiful tinkling music, the piano now sits silent, still intact.
At the time of sinking, the Gunilda carried several sets of gold rimmed china, of which some pieces are seen peeking through the galley’s open cupboards, or on tables throughout the wreck. With some missing or stolen, the remaining sets have become a true treasure to behold. While many other relics are covered in silt, the china remains terrifically white, with the gold rims glittering.
But not all of the Gunilda is accessible. Bulky diving equipment and tight doorways restrict many areas, allowing only for an outstretched arm to film or photograph. Stairs leading downward, carved from teak wood with matching railings, are just one area where its secrets are locked away.
Past the beauty and awe, the Gunilda carries a unique, yet tragic, history.
The Gunilda was built in Leith, Scotland in 1897. It was designed by the London-based Cox & King, specifically, their luxury yacht designer Joseph Edwin Wilkins. The blueprints themselves ooze opulence, featuring luxuries such as the skylight over the main salon.
The Scottish shipbuilding company Ramage & Ferguson, known for transforming blueprints into upscale luxury steam yachts, took on the Gunilda and built it for ~$200,000. Its completion was part of the late 1800s boom of British recreational vessels, including yachts and other pleasure boats.
With a steel hull and a 27-inch stroke steam engine, the Gunilda was well-equipped for cruising, but its length of ~59 m (194 ft) meant it was trickier to maneuver in tight or risky locations.
By 1911, the Gunilda was owned by William Harkness, an American businessman and member of the New York Yacht Club. His beloved yacht was the flagship of the club, and Harkness arranged for a trip through the Great Lakes — including sailing through the numerous islands in Northern Ontario — with a group of other affluent passengers.
But the waters in Northern Ontario are unforgiving and often fraught with risk. The shoals and islands care neither about costs nor the safety of its guests, a warning that Harkness failed to heed.
For a fee of $15, a local captain offered his services to Harkness, cautioning that the picturesque route could be dangerous and could damage — or worse, sink — his beautiful Gunilda. However, Harkness refused, believing the cost to be “exorbitant.” And so he set sail with his own captain.
This was the first error in a series of failures.
On August 29, 1911, the Gunilda was gliding its way along the waters off Rossport, through a deep fog. Suddenly, the yacht dragged along an underwater shoal, running aground with a sharp list portside and coming to rest against a boulder. The warnings, no longer trivial, had been realized.
As the Gunilda rested against the rock, it was evident that it would sink slowly, allowing for passengers to escape and other boats to attempt a salvage operation.
Despite the shock of the crash, the crew and passengers remained calm, with little panic. Due to their belief that the collision wasn’t serious, belongings were left scattered where they were, from their cabins to the salons. And whether caused by the casual and unconcerned atmosphere or simply forgotten, neither the lower portholes nor the hatches were closed — the second failure.
Within a couple of days, the James Whalen, an icebreaker tugboat from what is now known as Thunder Bay (then known as Port Arthur and Fort William), prepared to attempt a daring salvage of the Gunilda.
The Whalen, nearly half the size of the Gunilda at 33 m (108 ft) long, was especially known for its strength, able to break 20-inch thick ice and with the capacity to tow heavy steamers. The homely tug was a sharp contrast to the beautiful and polished yacht, but was the Gunilda’s best chance of survival.
With the yacht’s size and severity of the foundering, the Whalen’s captain recommended hiring an additional tug to ensure the Gunilda’s safety. Harkness, still concerned about being swindled, refused yet again. This was the third, final — and perhaps the most destructive — error.
After the Whalen travelled to McGarvey’s shoal, they were left with a new problem: the Gunilda’s lack of mooring posts. Ultimately, they decided to wrap an 8-inch rope around the entire yacht and prepared to pull with the tough tug.
Despite running the Gunilda reversed and at full speed, it refused to budge from its precarious position.
After reversing the engines failed, the Whalen attempted to swing the Gunilda to break away from the shoals. When it failed, the Whalen’s wrecking master J. Wolvin decided to pursue a more aggressive tactic.
C. H. J. Snider of the afternoon newspaper Toronto Telegram was present on the Whalen, and watched the scene unfold.
“We were afraid to list the yacht too far over to starboard in case she would topple over and sink,” he wrote in his 1937 article “How Big Shot Took $1,000,000 Crack on the Chin.”
The Whalen began pulling the Gunilda, without stopping. Their fears were realized when the Gunilda also didn’t stop shifting. It flopped to starboard as the masts dipped into Lake Superior.
All of the open portholes and hatches welcomed the cold water as it gushed in. While no lives were lost in the initial crash, the rescue had suddenly become much more dangerous.
With some of the crew onboard the rapidly sinking Gunilda, it was time for the Whalen to save them — and fast.
“It called for desperate measures,” wrote Snider.
Rapidly, the rope connecting the two was removed and tossed aside. The Whalen charged towards the centre of the sinking yacht, allowing the crew aboard the Gunilda to scramble to safety.
They were out of harm’s way at the perfect moment. The weight of the water and the yacht itself proved too much for the doomed Gunilda.
As everyone onboard the Whalen watched in horror, the water flooded the yacht, stern first, with the Gunilda’s gilded bow facing the skies before plummeting into the deep water.
The Gunilda was not done. As the bow then slipped under the waves, a terrible explosion cracked the sky. Its boilers had exploded from the frigid water, a final howl from a yacht now doomed to the lake floor for eternity.
From the yacht that cost $200,000, only flotsam and jetsam remained. The crew worked amongst the wreckage, taking whatever was deemed valuable. The Whalen then began its return to inform Harkness of the tragic news.
Before they could leave, however, Harkness, who had grown increasingly nervous about the fate of his yacht, arrived at the scene of the sinking. He greeted the Whalen’s captain with the understanding that he would never see the Gunilda again.
“Well, Captain, she is gone,” said Harkness, “Were any lives lost?”
When the captain confirmed that everyone was safe, Harkness was relieved.
“Thank God,” Harkness said, “We can get a new yacht but we cannot bring a life back.”
Harkness, Snider, Wolvin and the crew headed back for Port Arthur. Harkness paid his crew’s wages for the rest of the season, and arranged for their transportation back to New York City.
For 56 years, the Gunilda rested undiscovered, until Chuck Zender found the undisturbed wreck in 1967.
But with the discovery of the hauntingly beautiful wreck came tragedies.
As of 1989, the foremast, now detached from the Gunilda and located at the Rossport Inn, holds a memorial plaque for diver Charles King Hague.
A year after the Gunilda’s discovery, Fred Broennle approached expert diver Charles King Hague and his wife, Maria Hague (now Phipps). He had become thoroughly infatuated with the wreck, hoping to raise it from the watery depths. He purchased the insurer’s rights to the Gunilda — it was his, and he was its.
Through an account from Maria Hague, the details of the tragedy become clearer.
“Fred Broennle, Ed Flatt and King Hague headed to Rossport August 3, 1970 with Broennle’s boat Lady Go Diver. Maria Hague joined them August 5 and Ruth Broennle and son Mark joined the group August 7, 1970.
“It was determined that Ed Flatt would be able to guide Fred Broennle and King Hague to the Gunilda even though a large green buoy marked McGarvey Shoal. Flatt had experience dragging for the Gunilda many years prior. An orderly grid was followed: east–west and north–south.
“After several days and numerous bounce dives, they were becoming discouraged. By about noon August 8, 1970, King Hague spotted white paint on the dragging anchor as it came up from about 110 feet (34 m).” © 2021, Phipps
Hague geared up and rapidly entered the water, leaving everyone else behind.
“He stated he was ‘just going to have a quick look at the 110 ft (34 m) mark.’
“Within about 10 minutes his bubbles went in circles, stopped and his dive light popped to the surface. Fred Broennle had started to gear up as King Hague departed. The wind and waves increased and an August squall had started.” © 2021, Phipps
Broennle quickly jumped after Hague. As he tried steadying himself, Broennle stumbled off the underwater shelf and rapidly plunged down.
After several moments, Broennle finally hit the bottom. Despite the fall lasting only a few seconds, he was already at 79 m (260 ft) underwater.
The Gunilda was nearby, hauntingly looming in the dark, but there was no sign of Hague. He had vanished into the coldness.
With little preparation, Broennle had only a small amount of air — nowhere near enough to properly decompress. Faced with two options, risk decompression sickness or drown, he inflated his vest and sprang back up.
In a final, desperate attempt to rescue King Hague, Broennle descended back to 24 m (80 ft) before his body gave up, and he was forced to leave King Hague behind.
“Within 15 minutes it became clear to Maria Hague that Fred Broennle was in trouble as well. His bubbles were not to be seen. She decided to head out to look for him in the small aluminum boat tethered to the Lady Go Diver.
“Ed Flatt was sitting on the bow of the Lady clutching his chest, as he was not feeling well, and Ruth and Mark were most anxious as now Fred Broennle was gone. Maria Hague set out in the direction of Copper Island about 2 km away.
“She found Broennle afloat, blood in his mask, alive and distraught. There was no way to get him into the boat so she lashed him alongside and towed back to the Lady.
“It was decided that Maria Hague and Mark Broennle needed to go for help to Rossport in the little boat 8 km away. Help came in a variety of forms and after three days, all search and rescue ceased. The Lady returned to the dock at Rossport without King Hague.” © 2021, Phipps
For nearly six long years, the Gunilda hosted its first victim.
“Broennle became even more obsessed with the Gunilda and was determined to find his friend.
“Fred Broennle, using a state of the art underwater video camera, located King Hague lying on his back at the lake floor near the stern of the Gunilda holding a small flagstaff, July 19, 1976. Broennle called Maria Hague, immediately who then accompanied the Coast Guard to the site and granted permission for King to be raised, transported to Thunder Bay, cremated and buried.” © 2021, Phipps
One more fatality lingers in the Gunilda’s history. In 1989, Reg Barrett, a Burlington, Ontario man in his early 50s died attempting to learn the Gunilda’s secrets.
“It’s surprising that there haven’t been more fatalities on [the Gunilda],” says Terry Irvine.
Irvine, however, thrives with the wreck. With each visit, he notes finding something new. In recent years, he has focused on retrieving more details from the smokestack’s whistle.
He’s not alone in his care for the Gunilda. Paul Turpin, retired founder of Discovery Charters in Rossport, shares his appreciation from above water. For years, he ferried tourists and divers around the same channels that stole the Gunilda, showing off Rossport’s natural beauty.
“It’s a neat wreck,” says Turpin. “I wish it was more protected because they don’t know how many people are diving it. If you go diving in Tobermory [Ontario, ~596 km away], you have to sign in so they can keep a record of that stuff.”
He also describes theft occurring at the wreck, with the previously noted number of china sets dwindling. As the Gunilda is a protected site, it’s illegal to bring up artifacts and must only be done with specific permission. However, he also describes how difficult it is to report any theft — tossing the artifacts overboard is one way to avoid being caught.
But with the Gunilda so deep underwater, only advanced divers will be able to see it in-person. With footage recorded from divers like Irvine, those above water are able to see a beautiful example of what opulence looked like at the time. While the yacht’s elegance is elusive, it isn’t impossible to see.
“It’s really neat [with the divers] going down and bringing back pictures and videos of stuff that I will never be able to see unless [they] did this,” says Turpin.
While other wrecks lie on Lake Superior’s lakebed, few are as ornate as the Gunilda. Thanks to any footage recorded, it radiates beyond the deep water, to continue catching the breath of anyone who lays eyes on the golden scrolls and carved wood.
The accounts presented by Maria Phipps are protected by copyright. Reproduction and distribution without written permission is prohibited.
Photos from Wikipedia,
Kaitlin Kenny is a York University-based professional writing student, and has written for Pro Tem, Her Campus York U, The Scuba News and Lake Superior News. She started writing at the age of 12, and most recently received an honourable mention for the 2021 Jan Rehner prize.
Katlin is a former Thunder Bay resident now residing in southern Ontario while studying. She lives with her partner and her cat, Tessa.
Special interests include shipwrecks, travel, disability and LGBTQ activism, and exploring niche hobbies.
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