Researchers have located the Joseph P. Farnan, a steamer that sank near South Haven 120 years ago

Underwater photo of Farnan wreckage

Those familiar with the riveting high seas drama of "The Perfect Storm" may be less familiar with equally noteworthy tales of our inland seas. On April 2, a reminder of the Great Lakes' ferocity surfaced with the announcement of the discovery of a 120-year-old shipwreck off the coast of South Haven. The wreckage was that of the steamer Joseph P. Farnan, which sank in the summer of 1889.

The Farnan was found by Michigan Shipwreck Research Associates[1], a non-profit organization based in Holland, Mich. Aside from information it gleaned from the shipwreck itself, MSRA learned about the Farnan disaster from a log entry provided by the South Haven station keeper. MSRA co-founder Craig Rich cited this particular shipwreck as a good example of the troubles that a working steamer faced in the 1800s.

Drawing of the Farnan

Built in Cleveland in 1887, the Farnan was a typical steamer, transporting food and other goods to ports throughout the Great Lakes. The day that it sank started with business as usual.

On July 20, 1889, at around 8:00 a.m., Captain Loren G. Vosburgh, his wife, Belle, and 10 crewmen set out from St. Joseph, Mich., bound for Escanaba in the Upper Peninsula, approximately 350 miles away. The day turned ugly when the ship encountered a storm shortly after departure.

Thus began a relentless six-hour battle with the weather, a fight that ended when a fire started in the engine room. No one knows how the blaze began. Because the water pumps were damaged, the crew was unable to quench the fire, and the flames spread, engulfing first the lifeboats stowed nearby and eventually the entire ship.

As the fire spread, the captain, his wife and the crew fastened together bits of wooden fenders and hatch covers[2] as makeshift life rafts. Approximately 17 miles west of South Haven, they abandoned ship in their juryrigged rafts, with some of the crew suffering from burns.

The Farnan's plight became known on shore when a South Haven watchman spied smoke on the horizon. Because the fire had progressed so quickly, a rescue team rode out to the scene in a small steamboat, forgoing the slower rowboats they usually used. Remarkably, the entire crew was saved. The ship itself was last seen completely consumed in flames.

To discover the lost vessel, the MSRA worked closely with the National Underwater and Marine Agency, founded by novelist Clive Cussler. The wreck was located using side-scan sonar technology, which provides images of the sea floor for surveying and for locating potentially hazardous items on submarine and shipping routes. 

Researchers presented their discovery of the Farnan on April 25 at "Mysteries and Histories Beneath the Inland Seas," an annual shipwreck show co-hosted by MSRA and the Joint Archives of Holland. The violent weather that destroyed the Farnan may not have been a once-in-a-century "Perfect Storm," but the steamer's story shows that the peril of sea travel is every bit as real in our inland seas as on the high seas of the Atlantic.

The mission of the Michigan Shipwreck Research Associates is to "preserve and promote Michigan's submerged maritime history." Its research can be read in detail at, A blog,, provides updates on shipwreck hunting news.

[1] Underwater photo of Farnan wreckage provided by Valerie van Heest, Director MSRA. Drawing courtesy of Robert Doornbos, colorized by Valerie van Heest, Director, MSRA

[2] Fenders on ships act like fenders on cars, except that on ships they are placed on the beams (the sides) to protect them when the ship docks. Hatch covers are placed over a ship's hatchways, which are openings in the deck that allow a ship's cargo to be lowered into its hold.