Alvinston Diver Greg Hilliard says being among the first to see a piece of Oil Springs history on the bottom of Georgian Bay is a once in a lifetime experience.
Hilliard, who runs a diving business with his wife, Allisha, was part of a group which went down to explore the Manasso which sunk in 1928 with 22 people on board.
Two of the passengers were from Oil Springs. George Wallace, a cattle rancher who had travelled to Manitoulin Island with his friend, George Lambert. They were looking for low-cost cattle at a time when beef prices were soaring, says Hilliard.
Wallace survived. Lambert’s body – and 14 others – were never recovered. It’s a story Hilliard wasn’t aware of until after the dive was complete and he had a chance to look for the history of the Manasso.
Hilliard’s opportunity to view the newly found wreckage was unusual. Several months before, he had contacted renowned shipwreck hunter Ken Merryman from Minneapolis asking to view one of his wrecks. Merryman turned him down.
But on the Canada Day weekend, Merryman and his partner found not one but two shipwrecks on the bottom of Georgian Bay- a rare feat says Hilliard since looking for shipwrecks is like “mowing a lawn that never ends.”
Merryman wanted to go down to the wreckage of the Manasso and take photos to document what he had found. But his regular photographer, Terry Irvine, wasn’t available right away. That’s when another diver recommend Hilliard.
He gathered his gear and headed to the Bruce Peninsula.
The group went down July 5. Hilliard is only able to talk about the experience now because Merryman has released details about his second find.
The Alvinston man says diving down to the Manasso was an incredible experience.
“You have visibility but it is somewhat limited – you can’t see the bottom. I get down to I want to say about 110 feet, then one thing comes into focus and then the whole wreck comes into focus. I remember saying to myself ‘This is awesome.’ Being the first person on it…it was pristine, all there, probably one of the most intact wrecks of its type.”
Hilliard added it is a “perfect example of a vessel of this era.” The work boats were used until they were no longer seaworthy, then destroyed for the wood and steel. “There are very, very few of these left.”
The Manasso is a 178-foot long passenger carrier. For its fateful voyage Sept. 15, 1928, the hold had been converted to a makeshift cattle barn, complete with pens to keep the 116 cattle Wallace was bringing home to Oil Springs.
Near the cattle was Wallace’s new Chevrolet Coupe. He and Lambert used it to get to Owen Sound, loaded it on the Manasso and travelled around Manitoulin with it in search of his new flock.
“No trouble was expected as the route was well known and had been traveled by the Manasoo many times before,” wrote the Toronto Telegraph.
“Capt. McKay wasn’t at all concerned when late Friday night a strong west wind whipped up the waters of Georgian Bay into a fury. For a time, the ship rode the storm well,” according to the report.
It was just three minutes from the time the captain noticed the ship was not responding to Manasso capsizing and eventually sinking to the bottom.
The crew didn’t have time to get the lifeboats ready. Lambert leapt into the water hoping to save himself. Wallace was one of six men who managed to get aboard a raft.
According to the Telegraph’s account. “For 60 hours, they clung to the raft, always wet with the waves constantly washing over them, numbed by the cold as the night’s temperature dropped to near freezing.”
One of the six died just hours before they were rescued. He was stripped of his clothing, which was given to another survivor who jumped in only in his underwear. Then the chief engineer’s body was pushed into the water in the hopes of keeping the raft afloat.
The wind blew the raft close to the shore at Griffith’s Island and then back out to where the Manasso sunk in 60 hours. It was there the steamer Manitoba spotted them and rescued the five men.
Crews searched for days for the wreckage and the 16 others, but there was so much debris, it was found as far away as Thornbury, near Collingwood.
Hilliard says an investigation later found the cattle probably caused the ship to roll by breaking up the makeshift pens and all moving to the lowest point of the ship.
Even though there was plenty of debris scattered around Georgian Bay, Hilliard and the crew found much of the Manasso intact – including the wheelhouse, which stands as a beacon 110 feet below the surface. “It is very, very rare for a wooden pilot house to remain intact,” he says.
The wheel is still there, with a few zebra muscles clinging to it. So is the compass, covered in silt. That is how the divers knew they were the first to find the wreckage – the silt had not been disturbed.
Hilliard’s photos show at least three lifeboats – in perfect condition – one still attached to the Manasso, the other right beside it.
Hilliard says with every turn, the discovery dive got better. “It’s like your already having the best day ever and it gets even better,” he says.
“It was a very, very special moment. Kind of the culmination of 20 years of diving. I don’t think I’ll get that opportunity again.”
Hilliard hopes to go back down to document the Manasso. In the meantime, he’s trying to find out more about the Oil Springs link to the wreckage.
And he’s hoping this story will stir memories in Lambton County which could uncover more of the Manasso’s story.
“There’s a chance that some surviving relative of Wallace has a wedding photo and in that photo could be this car, it’s unlikely, but you don’t know if you don’t try. I really need to put the pieces of history together.
“Non-divers will always ask…do you ever find any treasure…I have no interest in ruining artifacts. I have enough crap in my basement I don’t need to pull rusty stuff off shipwrecks. And, for the most part, there isn’t anything of significant value on the bottom of the lakes. The real treasure is the story.”
If you have any information you would like to share, you can reach Hilliard at 519-280-7434.