Island built, Island bound 1881 Jane Miller wreck found after 136 years in waters near Wiarton

The bow of the Jane Miller, found after 136 years this past July, in Georgian Bay near Wiarton.

COLPOY’S BAY—The Little Current-built Jane Miller, a 78-foot passenger and cargo steamer, has been found on the bottom of Lake Huron after going missing while enroute to Manitoulin during a storm 136 years ago with over 25 people aboard, all of whom drowned.

The ship was discovered by American shipwreck hunters Ken Merryman, Jared Daniels and Jerry Eliason on July 27 of this year, but the team chose to reveal their find on the 136th anniversary of the sinking on November 25 (the ship sank on November 25, 1881).

“The find of the Jane Miller is so exciting,” said Little Current historian Bill Caesar. “These little boats are so important to the history of Manitoulin. It was loaded with supplies when it went down and those are such a treasure trove—a time capsule of what life on Manitoulin was like at that time (1880s).”

Mr. Merryman, who has been hunting shipwrecks for over 40 years and is a founder of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Preservation Society, spoke with The Expositor earlier this week from his home in Minnesota.

The Jane Miller at midship laying flat at the bottom of Colpoy’s Bay in July of this year.

“We, myself, Jared Daniels and Jerry Eliason, had a permit from the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport to search for four ship wrecks this year,” he explained. “It was July and we had been in the Wiarton area searching for the Manasoo, but the weather got too rough to search in the open water (where they believed the Manasoo is), so we decided to look for the Jane Miller, which supposedly went down between Big Bay and Spencer’s Landing, what is now called Skinner’s Bay (a landing within Colpoy’s Bay). The ship left Big Bay on the night of November 25, 1881 after picking up wood fuel. It was headed to Spencer’s Landing next, only four miles away, but never showed up.”

Mr. Merryman said that given the details of when it disappeared “it should have been easy to find.”

“Sometimes people just don’t look or aren’t interested,” he said of shipwrecks. “We had heard rumours of deep crevasses in the bay and thought the wreck may be hiding in one, but the sonar didn’t indicate any. We decided to look past the turn into Spencer’s Landing, extending our search southwest, thinking that maybe the captain might have gone past due to the weather, decided to go on to Wiarton or couldn’t make out the turn in the dark. We found it (the Jane Miller) on our second or third pass (with the sonar).”

The ship was upright, flat on the bottom, Mr. Merryman said.

“The ship wasn’t very deep—slightly beyond recreational diving depth,” he explained.  “With our permit we couldn’t go in, we could only swim around.”

Mr. Merryman and Mr. Daniels decided to do a dive after looking at the ship through a drop camera.

“The upper cabins were collapsed and the lower ones had been made out of soft wood and had deteriorated leaving big holes,” he continued. “The cargo deck was intact and we could see in fairly well. The hull was totally intact, so was the mast behind the pilot house and the ship’s wheel. There was also a pile of dishes and lots of crates.”

Mr. Merryman said that he and Mr. Daniels also saw what they think were human remains.

“We think we saw human remains, 25 to 30 people went down with the ship, but the zebra mussels made it hard to tell,” said Mr. Merryman.

The shipwreck hunter said that the Jane Miller was positioned on the bottom of the lake pointing due north.

“It was described as being a ‘cranky ship’ meaning it was top heavy,” he said. “It looks like maybe it did try to turn into Spencer’s Landing but it took on more water. It was said to have already taken some on possibly due to a leak, and tipped over. It was a cold and windy night so people were probably in their rooms and it happened quickly. That’s our best guess at this point.”

The Jane Miller was built in Little Current in 1879 by James Miller and Son, and named for Jane Miller (nee Bell). The ship was sold to Captain Andrew Port in 1880.

According to ‘Canada’s 150 Most Famous Great Lakes Shipwreck’s by Cris Kohl and Joan Forsberg (and available at The Expositor Office bookstore), the Jane Miller was a 210-gross-ton, wooden propeller that transported cargo and passengers around the many small ports of Georgian Bay and the North Channel.

“On November 26, 1881, the Jane Miller departed Meaford, bound for Wiarton, 40 miles away, with 28 people (reportedly 27 men and one woman) on board and a cargo of general freight,” states the Jane Miller description in the Great Lakes Shipwrecks book. “She had previously taken heavy cargo on board at Owen Sound. The little ship, last seen at Big Bay wood dock three miles west of Meaford, pushed right into the eye of a vicious gale and was never seen again. There were no survivors and no body was ever recorded.”

“There has been considerable excitement over the Jane Miller which left here on Friday last for Providence Bay, Manitoulin Island,” states a Meaford Monitor newspaper article dated Friday, December 2, 1881 and featured on the Maritime History of the Great Lakes website. “She was to call at Wiarton and had a cargo for Lion’s Head, but nothing has been heard of her from either port, though the telegraph has been freely used for news of her whereabouts. There is a rumour that packages of fish have been discovered on Hay Island, near Wiarton, but no one can tell if they belong to the cargo of the missing boat. Mr. Train of this place has received a letter from Lion’s Head, dated Monday, and saying that the Miller had not been there.”

In another Meaford Monitor article, one week later, Friday, December 9, 1881, the ship’s disappearance is confirmed.

“No trace has been discovered of the missing steamer, excepting a few relics which tell only too surely of her certain fate,” the article reads. “The Jane Miller left this port on Friday the 25th of November, bound first to Wiarton and Lion’s Head, where she was to have discharged her cargo, and then for Michaels and Providence Bays, on Manitoulin Island. On her way she called at Big Bay, about ten miles from Wiarton, and at Cameron Dock, one and a half miles further on, where she was about 10 o’clock on Friday night. At that place it is now stated that it was known the steamer had water in her hold and that the captain was urged not to venture further, but he determined to go out, trusting to the pumps to overcome the leaks.”

According to the article three men’s caps, several tubs of butter, part of a mast and other small portions of a vessel and two oars marked ‘Jane Miller’ were found on White Cloud Island at the entrance at Colpoy’s Bay.

It also lists the names of the passengers and crews who went down with the ship including: “passengers J.B. Hallock, Lyman S. Vander, Jeremiah Walker (of Meaford), Stewart Thompson, Gilbert Corbett, Jensten of St. Vincent Township, Capt. Malcolm McLeod of Detroit, Hill of ——, L. Butchart and Wife of Tobermory, and 10 labourers who were going to the lumber shanty at Tobermory, names unknown; the crew, Captain A. Port, Mate R.D. Port, Fred Port (purser of Wiarton), engineer J. Christison of Red Bay, wheelsman Alex. Scales of Keppel and three deck hands and two fireman who names have not been ascertained.”

Unfortunately, The Manitoulin Expositor archives from May 1881 to May 1882 are missing and not available on the microfilm at the Little Current Public Library. However, in a Wiarton Echo article from December 16, 1881 there is mention of the various papers and their coverage of the Jane Miller’s sinking.

According to the Wiarton Echo article, the Guelph Mercury wrote, “We are not surprised at the wreck of the Jane Miller. When we learn from The Manitoulin Expositor that she ran ashore on Club Island the previous week but got off without injury. On her way up trip the week following her machinery got out of order during a storm and the vessel was almost ashore on Horse Island before it could be got to work again.”

Mr. Merryman explained his decision to announce the ship’s discovery just last month, opposed to when it was discovered in July.

“We delayed announcing the ship’s discovery because our permit doesn’t allow us to make an announcement until we have submitted a written report to the ministry,” said Mr. Merryman. “Since it was already delayed we decided to wait and make the official announcement on the 136th anniversary (of the ship’s sinking).”

He said that he had hoped to return to the Jane Miller for another dive this year, but due to prior commitments he and his fellow discoverers were not able to.

“I would very much like to get back and do some further documentation of the ship,” concluded Mr. Merryman. “We haven’t heard back from the ministry and it would now be an archeological site and grave site, so we aren’t sure how that will be handled.”