Seeking Shipwrecks on the Great Lakes | Midwest Living
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Seeking Shipwrecks on the Great Lakes

Thousands of ships, pulled under by the Great Lakes and eerily preserved in their icy waters, give visitors a glimpse into a treacherous past.

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The Lure of Danger

Disaster has loomed over Great Lakes navigators since 1679, when Lake Huron claimed the French fur-trading vessel Griffon and five crewmen in the lakes' first recorded shipwreck. By the late 19th century, one out of every four boats leaving a Great Lakes port in some busy seasons never returned. The human toll was devastating at times, including the lakes' deadliest wreck, the 1915 rollover of the Eastland at a Chicago dock, which killed 836. By about 1920, the era of frequent wrecks was fading as ship traffic decreased and aids such as radar and better weather forecasting arrived.

Many sinkings resulted from on-board fires or collisions in the crowded shipping lanes of the late 1800s and early 1900s, but moody weather reigns as the champion ship-killer. "The weather on the lakes can change in a second," says Frederick Stonehouse, author of more than 25 books on Great Lakes shipwrecks. "You can go from flat calm to gale. It can truly turn to hell."

On the most storm-lashed shores, such as Michigan's "Shipwreck Coast" along Lake Superior, waves can build into crashing hammers three stories high as they race across hundreds of miles of open water.

A single storm on the Great Lakes has been enough to humble many saltwater sailors, who quickly learned that waves strike closer together on the relatively shallow lakes, giving ships reeling from one watery blow little chance to recover before the next comes.

Waves, however, weren't the only threat. In late fall, when the worst storms tended to cause a spike in shipwrecks, many lakeshores welcomed anyone who escaped the water with a wall of wintry, primeval forest.

"You have a wild and desolate coast, so if a wreck occurs, you're on your own," Stonehouse says of Superior's coasts in particular. "If you make it to shore, that's just the beginning."

From all these dangers, an irresistible mystique couldn't help but grow.

"There's something dangerously attractive about the romance of sailing the lakes and the dangers that go with it, even to this day," says Tom Farnquist, executive director of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society and veteran of hundreds of dives on wrecks.

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