Dark Memories

Underwater photographers capture haunting images of a Great Lakes freighter that broke in two and sank during a 1966 Lake Huron gale. // Photography by Becky Kagan Schott and Chris Winters
Becky Kagan Schott and Christopher Winter
Becky Kagan Schott and Christopher Winter underwater

In this issue of BLUE, we bring you Becky Kagan Schott’s and Christopher Winter’s underwater photography. Images that depict the ghostly remains of a steel freighter built in Bay City in 1906 that eventually was unable to withstand the elements: 70 mph winds and 25-foot waves. They are images that remind us of the dangers and peril Great Lakes mariners have faced for hundreds of years.

Lying on the bottom of Lake Huron in more than 200 feet of water, the ghost-like freighter, SS Daniel J. Morrell, sits silently in darkness, a testament to tragedy. It has rested there since November 1966, when the 603-foot ore carrier foundered in a terrible storm, broke in two and eventually sunk; its halves settling miles apart. The aft portion stayed buoyant and under power. It continued on the surface for several miles.

Daniel J Morrell
The Daniel J. Morrell was 60 years old when it sank.

The story of its demise and the 28 crew members who perished, along with the near 40-hour ordeal of the 29th crew member who survived, was memorialized in the 2010 book “Shipwrecked: Reflections of the Sole Survivor” written by the late Dennis Hale who died from cancer at 75 in 2015. He was 26 years old working as a watchman aboard when the freighter went down.

In 2018, on a calm July day when the surface light was bright, the bow of the SS Daniel J. Morrell slowly came into view and loomed large for Christopher Winters, author and professional photographer from Milwaukee, and Becky Kagan Schott, five-time Emmy-winning underwater cameraman, photographer and diving instructor. The two and a crew of helpers had descended to depth to photograph the Morrell.

Daniel J. Morrell shipwreck
Top: Divers light the anchor on the freighter’s bow. Bottom: Plates remain stacked in the freighter’s quagga mussel-encrusted galley.

It was Schott’s sixth or seventh dive to the ship, but Winters’ first, “a bucket-list dive” for the 48-year-old father of a newborn back home. He was there to shoot photos of the ship and of Schott, who planned to stage light the wheelhouse and other areas to create dramatic photos. Her works have appeared on the Discovery Channel, Travel Channel and National Geographic.

Winters, a board member for the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society, wanted to see the ship in person. Hale was a longtime friend, and Winters was developing an interpretive display about the tragedy for the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum (shipwreckmuseum.com) in Paradise. The display is expected to open this summer.

When you go down and see that half of the freighter is missing and rests 5 miles away and think about what the crew went through in their final moments, it’s very haunting.
— Becky Kagan Schott

“At 120 feet down, you could start to see stuff; it was a ghost-ship effect, a supernatural feeling to see that huge bow loom out of the gloom and stand off and see the whole structure,” said Winters, who refers to Hale as a legend. “It was a very powerful experience.”

Schott, who did not know Hale, had read his book. “His story was so powerful, I wanted to help tell the story,” she explained. “If people don’t see it (the freighter), they don’t know that it is even there.”

Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum
A silt-filled shoe remains in the sunken hull as a reminder of those who perished. Inset: Dennis Hale’s lifejacket will be part of Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum’s display.

Schott is a mixed-gas diving expert from Aston, Pennsylvania. Going so deep, she said, required specialized life support equipment. And time on the bottom was limited to about 25 minutes to allow for the decompression stops needed while returning to the surface.

“When you go down and see that half of the freighter is missing and rests 5 miles away and think about what the crew went through in their final moments, it’s very haunting,” Schott said.

Freighter bunks
The crew’s bunks are crusted over with mussels.

Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum staff report that there are more than 6,000 shipwrecks in the Great Lakes and an estimated 30,000 fatalities from them. More are found all the time.

Howard Meyerson is the managing editor for Michigan BLUE Magazine.

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