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Thomas Wilson – Whaleback Freighter 1892-1902 (SHIPWRECK)

Thomas Wilson – Whaleback Freighter 1892-1902 (SHIPWRECK)


The Thomas Wilson was a riveted-steel, single propeller freight-carrying steamship. The Wilson was built during the winter of 1891-1892 at West Superior, Wisc., and was launched April 30, 1892. The wreck of the Wilson is historically significant as the best known surviving example of the earliest whaleback steamships. Whalebacks were a distinctive type of Great Lakes bulk freighter designed by Captain Alexander McDougall for the transportation of grain, iron ore and lumber in the late 19th century. The Wilson was the last whaleback constructed without hatch coamings. The Wilson’s importance is enhanced by its role in the establishment of safe operating procedures at Duluth-West Superior Harbor as a result of its loss. The remains of the Thomas Wilsonwere listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1994.


On June 7, 1902, the Thomas Wilson was outbound from Duluth Harbor carrying a cargo of Mesabi iron ore. At the same time, the 2,073-ton wooden steamerGeorge Hadley was inbound. As the weather was clear and calm, the captain of the Wilson took it out of the harbor before its hatches were closed. Half a mile from the pierhead the tug Annie L. Smith hailed the Hadley to divert to Superior Harbor, as all the coal docks at Duluth were full. The captain of the Hadleyordered an immediate turn to port without noticing the Wilson coming toward him or blowing the required whistle signals. The captain of the Wilson, leary of the Hadley’s movements but concerned about running aground if he turned to port, ordered a hard turn to starboard. The Hadley collided with the Wilson as they each made their turns. The wooden steamer struck the whaleback forward of the after hatch, then recoiled from the impact. The Wilson heeled over to port, righted and then began to sink by the bow. Within three minutes the stern plunged under the water, carrying nine of the Wilson’s twenty-man crew to their deaths. The Hadley barely reached shallow water before beaching itself. It was later repaired and refloated. The Wilson and its cargo were valued at $207,000.

Thomas Wilson Detailed Information
MN historical Society Shipwreck Map


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