The 4 Biggest Shipwrecks in Lake Erie’s History

Written by Nixza Gonzalez
Updated: October 10, 2023
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Who says shipwrecks are only limited to oceans? Lake Erie is one of the largest lakes in the world. It’s one of the Great Lakes in North America and is the fourth largest by area. This large lake is no stranger to shipwrecks, some of which are massive, and tragically ended with deaths. Follow along to discover the four biggest shipwrecks in Lake Erie’s history.

Infographic for the 4 Biggest Shipwrecks in Lake Erie's History.
Two storms and two fires sank or destroyed these ships and barges.

Are Shipwrecks Common in Lake Erie?

In Lake Erie, experts estimate there are well over 2,000 shipwrecks. However, only about 270 have been discovered. This number grows with every year. Interestingly, many of the discovered shipwrecks in the lake are located near Kelleys Island. You don’t have to just read about these shipwrecks though, you can also dive and visit a few. They are very well preserved because of the water’s naturally cold temperature. The cause of the shipwrecks varies. Some were destroyed during sudden storms, while others had technical issues.

About Lake Erie

Before we dive into the biggest shipwrecks in Lake Erie’s history, let’s learn a little more about Lake Erie. This phenomenal lake is in both Canada and the United States. Lake Erie touches multiple large cities including Cleveland, Erie, Buffalo, and Toledo. The lake’s primary inflow is the Detroit River. 

Lake Erie’s clear waters, beautiful scenery, and wildlife make it stand out. It’s also impressive for its size. This lake is about 241 miles long and 57 miles wide. The surface area of Lake Erie is 9,910 square miles. This shallow lake’s average depth is 62 feet, while its maximum depth is 210 feet. The lake also has over 800 miles of shoreline to enjoy swimming, beaching, and kayaking.

A Beautiful and Colorful Sunset on the beaches of Erie Lake, Michigan, USA

Lake Erie’s surface area is 9,910 miles. The lake also boasts over 800 miles of shoreline.


The 4 Biggest Shipwrecks in Lake Erie’s History

Although there are likely over 2,000 shipwrecks in Lake Erie, we are only going to discuss 5 large and unique wrecks. Not all wrecks have been discovered, while others are nearly perfectly preserved. In no particular order, listed below are some of the 4 biggest shipwrecks in Lake Erie’s history.

The SS G. P. Griffith

The first large shipwreck on our list is the SS G. P. Griffith, a large passenger steamer. The SS G. P. Griffith was only completed in 1848. This massive ship was 193 feet long and weighed 587 tons. The ship was so big that it contained 56 staterooms. So, what happened to this impressive ship?

The SS. G. P. Griffith had a short career. In 1850, just two years after it was first launched, the ship went up in flames. The ship was carrying 326 passengers. Sadly, the fire quickly spread, which resulted in the deaths of at least 241-289 people.

SS G.P. Griffith, shipwreck in Lake Erie

The SS G.P. Griffith went down in Lake Erie when it caught fire, forcing passengers to jump into the water.

©James T. Lloyd / Public domain – License

The Argo

The Argo is one of the most well-known shipwrecks in the lake. Although not the largest, it left quite an impact. On this barge were 4,762 barrels of crude oil and the chemical benzol. The barge was about 120 feet long and 34 feet wide. Like other shipwrecks on this list, the Argo wrecked when a sudden storm passed through the area. This barge was not designed for the open water, and it sank to the bottom of the lake in 1937 as wind speeds reached 20 to 40 mph.

Although it sank in 1937, it was only recently discovered in 2015. Tom Kowalczk detected the wreck when looking for the wooden schooner Lexington. Worried about pollution from a leak, the Coast Guard conducted a three-month effort to recover the oil and chemical contents and moved them to another vessel. In the end, they extracted 50,000 gallons of contaminated water.

Flag of the United States Coast Guard

The United States Coast Guard removed contaminated waters from the Argo in 2015 to avoid pollution.

©Leonard Zhukovsky/

The Morania

Next on our list of the biggest shipwrecks in Lake Erie’s history is the Morania. The Morania was a 230-foot-long barge. On its last voyage, it carried 800,000 gallons of gasoline. This large barge was knocked into the steamer Penobscot in 1951 as it was pushed by the diesel tug M/V Dauntless #12. This caused a spark, which resulted in a massive fire that burned for days. Sadly, this tragic accident led to eleven deaths and was the worst marine disaster in Buffalo in the 20th century.

Steamer Penobscot that was hit by the barge Morania in 1951 causing the worst marine disaster in Buffalo in the 20th century.

The steamer Penobscot was hit by the Morania barge causing a huge fire.

©Publisher J. H. Beers & Co / Public Domain – License

The SS Margaret Olwill

Have you ever heard of the SS Margaret Olwill wreck? The SS Margaret Olwill was a shipping vessel on Lake Erie. It’s one of the oldest wrecks in the lake. The SS Margaret Olwill was constructed in 1887. It was 175.6 feet long. Two years later, in 1889, a large storm passed through Ohio. This caused a lot of complications, including seams in the ship’s hull and water coming into contact with limestone. The steering also failed as the waves and wind were too much for the ship. There were 12 to 13 people on board and 900 tons of limestone. Only four people survived as the ship sank quickly.

SS Margaret Olwill in Lake Erie

The SS Margaret Olwill was constructed in 1887 and wrecked two years later.

© / Public domain – License

Summary of the 4 Biggest Shipwrecks in Lake Erie’s History

NameType of VesselYear of SinkingNumber of Deaths
SS G. P. Griffithpassenger steamship1850Between 241-289
The Argobarge1937None
The Moraniabarge195111
SS Margaret Olwillsteamship18898-9

The photo featured at the top of this post is © IanSkylake17/

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About the Author

Nixza Gonzalez is a writer at A-Z Animals primarily covering topics like travel, geography, plants, and marine animals. She has over six years of experience as a content writer and holds an Associate of Arts Degree. A resident of Florida, Nixza loves spending time outdoors exploring state parks and tending to her container garden.

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