The winter of 2014 was harsh in many ways. It wreaked havoc on traffic and road conditions, it cancelled school and other events, and it gave us all a terrible case of cabin fever. But the blowing winds and shifting snows also had another effect, this one on the shores of Lake Michigan. It unearthed a shipwreck. As Ward Lamphere walked along the beach near Traverse City, Michigan, he stumbled across the ribs of a ship in the sand that had been uncovered by the winter’s violent storms. “It’s a pretty good-size artifact. It is one-half of a boat. It is pretty old because there are no threads or bolts or anything like that. You’ve been walking on that beach many times and all of a sudden something is there,” says Kerry Kelly, chairman of the board for Friends of the Sleeping Bear. As investigation of this wreck continues, the discovery brings to mind a question. Just how many shipwrecks are out there on Lake Michigan and its shores?
Valerie van Heest, author of Lost and Found: Legendary Lake Michigan Shipwrecks and director of the Michigan Shipwreck Research Association, is not only an expert on shipwrecks in the region, but she is one of the people that is involved in searching for shipwrecks. “The act of searching gives us historical information so you can write the final chapters of the ship’s careers, and you encourage more recreation with information of the dive sites,” she says. “There are two kinds of shipwrecks. There are shipwrecks that have been lost and have never been found, and then those that have been found. There is a third category that people don’t really think about. Some 25 percent of the shipwrecks lost on Lake Michigan were ones that grounded near shore and there remains typically no longer exist because they are scavenged and the power of the shore breaks them up,” says van Heest. These types would be like the one unearthed near Traverse City.
She continues, “About 2,000 ships have gone missing on Lake Michigan since the early 1800s, when is when commercial shipping began in earnest on the Great Lakes. In 30 feet of water or deeper, about 1,500 of those 2,000 fall into this category. There are only about 350 of these that have been found.” As curator and designer of the exhibit at the Michigan Maritime Museum in South Haven Mysteries Beneath the Waves which opened on May 1 and runs through end of season in 2015, van Heest says that the shipwrecks in this region are important. “What I believe is significant about the collection of shipwrecks gone missing in southeast Michigan is that they span the evolution of shipping on the Great Lakes. Almost all of the types of ships that were used in commercial transportation are represented by the wrecks on the bottom ranging from the earliest types of sailing crafts, single-masted sailing vessels, two-masted schooners, three-masted schooners, steam power ships like small wooden steamers, self-unloaders which carried their own conveyor belt equipment to unload cargos, and even more modern iterations like the car ferries that carried train cars. So the ships off of southeast Michigan represent this whole span of shipping and with each discovery we are able to learn things from ships that we didn’t know from historical documents. Each new discovery gives us new information,” van Heest says.
One of the pieces of information that van Heest and her colleagues are able to learn from shipwrecks is the reasons ships sink, which is certainly valuable information in improving the safety of ship transportation. “Not only do our shipwrecks represent the whole array of types of ships that were sailed, but they also demonstrate an array of reasons ships sank. People assume it’s all storms, but that only accounts for about 50 percent of losses. Fire was a big cause of ships going down. The Joseph Farnan was lost in 1889 near South Haven, Michigan because the boiler caught on fire and 21 people were on board and they faced the choice of staying on a burning ship or jumping in the cold water. The South Haven lifesaving station saw smoke on the horizon, sent a rescue boat out and rescued everyone. The S.S. Michigan represents another reason ships sank—ice. It operated year round and went out to try to rescue another ship that had been trapped in the ice and in 1885 the power of the ice crushed its hull and it went to the bottom. The crew of all 25 lived and some even walked 20 miles across the ice to shore, right off of Holland, Michigan. Other ships grounded because of a storm. They would be trying to get into a channel and the power of the storm and surf was so much it pushed them close to shore in shallow water, like the City of Greenbay which sank in 1887. Another reason was mechanical failure and in the case of the Hennepin which went down in 1927, that was an older ship, it had many pumps operating to take care of any water coming in since it had a wooden hull, but the pump filters got clogged and it went to the bottom. The fifth reason would be collision and we had only one collision occur in our area when a ship called the Kalamazoo collided with a ship called the Pilgrim. One was going from Chicago to Michigan, the other from Michigan to Chicago and both captains were right on course and because they were right on course, in darkness, they ended up hitting each other,” she says.
Brad Bumgardner, Interpretive Naturalist for the Indiana Dunes State Park, says that in Indiana, one of the shipwrecks just off the shore, the J.D. Marshall, is commemorated through its engine propeller, featured just outside of the pavilion, and staff is in the process of further designation including an underwater plaque and visual interpretation at the pavilion. Bumgardner explains, “The J.D. Marshall shipwreck sits off the beach at the Indiana Dunes State Park. It sunk on June 11, 1911. It was, at the time, one of Indiana’s largest maritime disasters. It was a 150 foot long sand freighter used to move sand to glass factories to Chicago, owned by the Independent Sand and Gravel Company. They owned two boats, the Marshall and one called the Muskegon. In 1910 the Muskegon caught fire in the harbor in Michigan City, Ind. When residents around the harbor got sick of seeing the burnt hull, they dragged it into the lake and sunk it. When the Marshall sank, it happened that the Marshall and the Muskegon went to the bottom of the lake within 12 hours of each other.”
Van Heest says there are still a few shipwreck mysteries in the region and she and her team is involved in getting to the bottom of them, quite literally. “The biggest mystery in our area is the propeller steamer Chicora which was lost on January, 21, 1895. This ship was delivering a late harvest of wheat from Milwaukee to St Joseph, Michigan. There were 25 crew members on board and the weather was clear for the run to Milwaukee, but a very nasty winter storm came up just as it was leaving Milwaukee to return. It should have made the crossing in six hours but it was never seen after leaving Milwaukee. The 25 guys who died were mostly from St. Joe and there have been rumors of its discovery every 10 years almost like clockwork, but no evidence, and it has grown into a mystery of huge proportions. We have searched and have not found it which means it is some significant distance from where it was supposed to be sailing. Another significant accident in recent times was the Andaste, a self-unloader, and it was the ship that the owners of the Hennepin bought when it sank. Just two years later, almost to the date, the Andaste was carrying a cargo of stone from Grand Haven to Chicago and it disappeared. The 25 crew members were on board and all died, all from Grand Haven. It happened in 1929 and it has never been found. We have covered many square miles looking for it. There was nobody left to provide any information on what happened which makes it hard to mount a search when you don’t have a final position. Another big mystery that is a little closer to the region is the Hippocampus, a wooden propellered ship, and in 1880 it was traveling with a load of peaches, which is an interesting cargo. This was in August and it was taking the peaches to Chicago where the big market was for fruit. It should have been a 12 hour crossing, a storm came up, the ship was overloaded because the captain was greedy and wanting to take as much cargo as he could and the crates were piled high up on the deck and when it got into waves, the extra burden of cargo caused it to capsize. The ship turned on its side in big waves and we know that because there were about 25 survivors and about 50 died and it went down about 30 to 40 miles off of St. Joe on the course toward Chicago near Michigan City. But it is so far into the lake that no one has ever really mounted an expedition in search of it so that would be a fascinating discovery,” she says.
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