Diving the Madeira

Jul 23, 2021State Parks

Standing on top of Gold Rock Point at Split Rock Lighthouse State Park on a calm and pleasant day at the very end of summer, it was hard to imagine Lake Superior could ever turn into a deadly beast. The morning fog had burned off, given way to sunny skies and the air smelled of spruce and fir, 60 feet above the lake.

View of divers and marking buoys from a high point on the shore at Split Rock Lighthouse State Park
The water down below was smooth. But in November of 1905 a fierce storm pounded the shore and smashed the schooner-barge Madeira into this rock until she sank. Today, recreational divers come to Split Rock Lighthouse State Park to explore what’s left of her after more than 100 years on the bottom of Lake Superior.
A man unloads a tank of Nitrox gas from the back of a pickup truck at Split Rock Lighthouse State Park
Scott Valleen, Dan Cafferty and Sam and Dave Alt had come from the Twin Cities to take a look. Dave Alt likes to dive here. “This is a great site, because it’s close to town and easy to get to,” he said.
Two divers practice their hand signals while another one watches at Split Rock Lighthouse State Park
That day he was here to help his son Sam, who came to get his advanced diving certificate. Sam had been SCUBA certified for a year and became interested in diving after a Caribbean cruise. But a dive in Lake Superior means water temperatures anywhere between 35 and 55 degrees, depending on the season.
A man in a diving suit assist another man with donning his gloves at Split Rock Lighthouse State Park
There to test Cafferty was Scott Valleen, instructor at Midwest School of Diving in White Bear Lake. For him, diving means belonging to a very exclusive club. “Only one percent of the world’s population goes down to see these things,” he said as they were unloading their trucks filled to the top with tanks, regulators, fins, masks, wet suits and lead weights.
A man in a diving suit is bent over his diving gear testing his mouthpiece at Split Rock Lighthouse State Park
They hauled everything down a steep flight of stairs to the pebble beach and got busy with their pre-dive routine: Wiggling into their suits, safety checks, adjustments and more safety checks. “The hardest part of diving is sinking,” said Scott Valleen and strapped on his lead weights.
An oxygen tank and other diving equipment sit on the beach at Split Rock Lighthouse State Park
Divers also wear an inflatable vest called a Buoyancy Compensator Device to control how fast they sink and rise in the water. Let air out and the weights pull you down. Inflate, and you rise back to the top. All this equipment can weigh up to 70 pounds and on land a diver isn’t exactly nimble. 
A man in a diving suit walks toward the water at Split Rock Lighthouse State Park

They finally started swimming out to the wreck site about 300 yards off shore, where a buoy marks where the pieces of the Madeira rest in about 80 feet of water. Then they disappeared. Dave Alt explained what happened next: “For me the coolest thing is swimming along the bottom and all of a sudden there is this looming darkness ahead of you. At first you think it might be a drop off, but as you get closer you realize it’s the hull of a ship, tipped on its side, rising 30 or 40 feet up off the lake bottom.”

Two divers float above a piece of wrecked equipment underwater while diving the wreck of the Madeira
“If that doesn’t get your heart pumping, I don’t know what will. If you drop down on the wreck from the surface, at first you just see the side rail of the ship. As you descend, the rest of the massive steel hull comes into view. You can see the deck, some of the hatches, the large winch and other mechanical devices on the back of the ship,” he said.
View of divers and marking buoys from a high point on the shore at Split Rock Lighthouse State Park
Both Dan Cafferty and Sam Alt received their certifications that day, but from the top of Gold Rock Point the marker buoy was just a small red dot, bobbing on Lake Superior. The only clue to what was going on 140 feet below the top of Gold Rock Point was a constant stream of white bubbles welling to the surface and churning up the calm, dark waters on a beautiful day in September.
A group of divers pose for a group photo on the surface of Lake Superior at Split Rock Lighthouse State Park
More about the Madeira and the Mataafa storm

The Madeira was an unpowered schooner-barge towed behind the William Edenborn, a steamship. Both sank in the Mataafa Storm of November 27 and 28, 1905, but the Edenborn was recovered and restored. After drifting from the William Edenborn, the helpless Madeira crashed into the shores of Gold Rock and began breaking up. One crewman, Fred Benson, scaled up the icy cliff, dropped down a rope and was able to save all but one man. This shipwreck is one of the few known surviving examples of a schooner-barge. Though it did break into numerous pieces, the major elements of the hull are mostly intact.

The rights to salvage pieces were sold to a salvage company, which hauled parts to Little Two Harbors Bay southwest of the crash site, but found it too difficult to take them out of the lake. In the early 1960s this practice stopped and the wreck is now open to the public to dive. Today, about 500 people a year come to visit the wreck. The Mataafa storm sank, destroyed and damaged 29 vessels and killed 36 seamen and is the reason Split Rock Lighthouse was built in 1910. One of the Madeira’s anchors is displayed at the historical site entrance at the park.

Sources: Minnesota Historical Society and Wikipedia.

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I’m Jan, the publisher of Minnesota Trails Magazine. I’m looking for that one trail, the next ride, a new discovery and other reasons never to sit still in Minnesota.


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