Nearly 200 shipwrecks are believed to lie within or close to the sanctuary’s boundaries, which include the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center in Alpena and an area of northwestern Lake Huron covering some 4,300 square miles. The area’s intersection of shipping routes, volatile weather conditions, and islands and submerged reefs contributed to making it a ‘shipwreck alley’ for more than two centuries. The Ironton and another schooner barge, the Moonlight, were being towed northward from Ashtabula, Ohio, by a steam-powered ship when the steamer broke down. The Ironton and the Moonlight drifted apart, with the Ironton crew setting sails and firing up its engine. It veered off course and collided with the Ohio, causing it to sink.
Staffers at the sanctuary detected two images on the lake bed during a sonar survey in the area of the Ironton-Ohio collision in 2017, one of which was later identified as the Ohio. In 2019, after using an autonomous surface vehicle designed for seafloor mapping, they tracked down the Ironton several miles away. Video footage showed the ship sitting upright on the lake bottom, hundreds of feet down, tethered to the lifeboat. The sanctuary awaits permits to plant a buoy on the lake floor, after which divers could attach their boats to it and explore the wreck