Whispers from the Past

There’s nothing quite like descending through cold, clear water into another world where schooners and steamers still ply the inland seas. // Illustrations by Gary W. Odmark
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Shipwreck Illustration

As the crisp, clean air of spring blows out over Lake Michigan and the hot summer air rolls in, my husband Jack and I begin thinking about our annual summer vacation. This year, I made a few suggestions. “How about we see New Orleans or New York? Or, we could go to Uganda and Minneapolis.”

“Sure,” Jack agreed, “or maybe we can go to Florida and the Arctic, then on the return trip, to Bermuda.”

We can do all this without ever leaving Michigan, because those italicized words above are shipwrecks. As scuba divers, we choose our vacation destinations based upon the attractions underwater. Each summer we hitch up our boat and head off to one of Michigan’s 12 underwater preserves.

There’s nothing quite like descending through cold, clear water, into another world where schooners and steamers still ply the inland seas. Last summer, we dove on the schooner Cornelia B. Windiate — the victim of an 1875 November storm — in the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary and Underwater Preserve. As I swam down, I felt transported back in time. Only the rhythmic melody of each breath drawn through my regulator interrupted my daydreams. I hovered midway down at 90 feet, mesmerized by the three masts still standing tall as if ready to have sails hoisted. Then, I glimpsed the lifeboat off the stern, a dreadful reminder that none of the crew made it.

Unlike salt water with wood-eating organisms, which reduces a schooner such as the Windiate to a pile of iron fasteners, the freshwater of the Great Lakes preserves these historic vessels in a nearly timeless state. Even ships damaged extensively during their sinking and over time by the action of the currents have much to offer, like the scow schooner Rockaway in the Southwest Michigan Underwater Preserve. An investigation by archaeologist Kenneth Pott revealed shoes, galleyware and tools offering insights into life on board a 19th-century sailing craft.

While freshwater preserves shipwrecks for centuries, divers can destroy them in a moment. When I started diving in the late 1970s, I hunted for “treasure.” Although I knew Great Lakes ships did not carry gold or silver, I could not resist helping myself to a souvenir such as a utensil, a lantern, or even a porthole.

Cliff Illustration

We divers eventually realized that we were destroying our own dive sites by stripping them of everything of aesthetic and historic interest. In 1980, Michigan divers championed a movement which led to the creation of the underwater preserve system and laws banning the recovery of artifacts without a permit.

In 1981, Thunder Bay in Lake Huron and Alger in Lake Superior were the first preserves designated around groups of shipwrecks. Over the next two decades, Michigan established 11 more. With 3,200 miles of shoreline along four of the five Great Lakes, our state boasts more waterfront than any other except Alaska. We owe our heritage to these inland seas that once served as a water-based highway connecting the east coast with the Midwest.

Water defines Michigan, and in its reflection, we see our roots.

The rugged coastal beauty, picturesque islands, and open expanses of water that draw travelers to such areas as the Keweenaw Peninsula, Detour Passage and Grand Traverse Bay are also the very features that contributed to the tragic loss of so many vessels, now on display in a vast underwater museum. The preserves focus attention not only on these wrecks, but on the nearby communities that played such a significant role in our maritime history.

The Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in the Upper Peninsula’s Alger County has been drawing vacationers for years, but few people realize that the winds gusting off the scenic sandstone cliffs caused eight vessels to sink there as they sought refuge in Munising’s harbor. Pete Lindquist takes visitors on glass-bottom boat tours: The Bermuda, a 130-foot wooden schooner that ran aground in the spring of 1870, is an amazing sight to behold.

“There is something about the mystique of sunken ships and the stories of human agony that draws visitors back again and again,” he recognizes.

Whitefish Point reaches into Lake Superior at its southeast end and provides a natural shelter for ships during November gales. The Edmund Fitzgerald was trying to reach safety there in 1975 when it foundered. High traffic, unpredictable fog, and violent storms have left the area with the highest concentration of shipwrecks in Lake Superior.

Tom Farnquist, a diver whose passion for the region’s history led him to establish the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point, has discovered many shipwrecks, including the 420-foot Cyprus. In 1907, the hull plates of the new steel freighter leaked while hauling iron ore from Superior, Wis., to Buffalo, New York. The incoming water dragged it down more than 450 feet to the bottom. Only one man survived.

Lantern Illustration

The Manitou Passage Underwater Preserve is ripe with maritime history. Museums, lighthouses, and lifesaving stations have drawn vacationers for decades. According to Jed Jaworski, who helped establish that preserve, “mariners could save nearly 60 miles by threading their way through the narrow passage between Sleeping Bear Dunes and the Manitou Islands. That savings cost many their lives.”

Numerous ships ran aground in the area’s shallow-water shoals. The Liberian freighter Francisco Morazan — bound for the Netherlands with 940 tons of freight — grounded to a startling halt at South Manitou Island on Nov. 27, 1960. It had run into the wreck of the freighter Walter Frost, which had sunk at that same spot 56 years earlier. The Morazan’s remains protrude above water’s surface a few dozen yards from the Frost on the Island’s south side.

On the opposite side of the island, the lumber hooker Three Brothers is visible in shallow water since shifting sands revealed it in 1996. Beachcombers in the Manitou Passage never know what they might stumble across.

The collection of shipwrecks in each preserve is unique to its geographical area.

“An incredible number of large freighters were lost due to the unpredictable weather and collisions in this highly-trafficked passage off the Thumb Area, according to shipwreck hunter David Trotter. The Point Aux Barques Lighthouse Museum in Port Hope interprets that area’s rich history.

Passenger and cargo steamers lost off the coast of Southwest Michigan harken back to the days of cross-lake traffic between Michigan’s small ports and Chicago and Milwaukee. The Michigan Maritime Museum will unveil a new exhibit featuring those losses in 2014.

Marquette has been a major shipping port on Lake Superior since the discovery of iron ore in 1844. Heavy traffic to and from there, exposed to the wrath of Superior’s famous gales, inevitably resulted in shipwrecks. Visitors can learn about these tragedies at the Marquette Maritime Museum.

After much consideration, my husband and I have decided to spend our vacation in the Straits of Mackinac to dive on the Minneapolis, a steamer holed by ice in 1894.

If you happen to be sipping ice tea on the porch of the Grand Hotel this summer, look for our dive boat, anchored just southeast of The Bridge.


This essay is an updated excerpt of a feature that first appeared in Michigan History magazine.

Valerie Van Heest resides in Holland.

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