Beneath the majestic waters of Michigan’s most prized natural resources lies a graveyard storied with bravery and travel. The Great Lakes contains an estimated 6,000 shipwrecks, spanning as far back as the 1670s all the way up to the famed sinking of The Edmund Fitzgerald in 1975. Sean Ley of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society said while tragic, the disasters out on the Lakes should continue to be studied to avoid future disasters and to remember the lifesaving efforts of emergency responders.
“The story we tell is the triumph of the human spirit in the face of adversity. When there’s a shipwreck, there are acts of heroism and people trying to save each other,” said Ley, who is also the development officer at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum in Whitefish Point, located in the Upper Peninsula on Lake Superior. “The rescuers were courageous men, purely dedicated to what they were doing.”
Ley said most of the wreckage was caused by “stress of weather,” where ships were out on the lakes in unfavorable conditions like sea storms, snow and fog. Since advanced technology like sonar and radio wasn’t discovered until the 19th century, collisions were frequent and sunk many ships. Shipwrecks on the Great Lakes are believed to account for some 30,000 deaths.
Outside of learning about certain ships and seeing recovered artifacts at the museum, explorers have the option of diving into the Great Lakes and seeing the shipwrecks up close. Ley described the lake diving prior to 1980 as a free for all, where divers could take any artifacts they found on the wrecks. These days, artifacts must remain with the ship unless the diver has a permit to take them.
Since 2008, the museum has been working with the Michigan Department of Transportation to film and photograph the wrecks via remotely operated vehicles. Ley predicts the technology will continue to improve, allowing researchers to develop a better understanding of sailing in centuries past.
In addition to divers plundering for artifacts, Ley said invasive species like Zebra Mussels are the biggest obstacle researchers face while studying shipwrecks. Lake Superior yields the most preserved wrecks since it’s too cold for invasive species yet Lake Michigan has the most wrecks. Ley estimates about 15 percent of the total wrecks been discovered by divers.
The most famous shipwreck on the Great Lakes is the Edmund Fitzgerald and the ship’s bell is on display at the museum. Other memorable wrecks include the Steamer Vienna, The Comet and Cyprus.
“There’s a line of life and death in nature people learn about with the wrecks,” Ley said. “We’ve created an art exhibit with films of wrecks, allowing us to explore and present them to as many people as possible.”
While the season for the museum is ending on Oct. 31, it opened on Nov. 10 to commemorate the sinking of the Fitzgerald. The museum is free to attend and lies 316 miles north of Fenton, a five hour drive according to Google Maps.