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.

(ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: MAY/JUNE 2005)

One step off the stern of the Linda K will plunge me into about 30 feet of jade-color water that is, at roughly 55 degrees, closer to the temperature of iced tea than a swimming pool. But Lake Superior's cold water isn't what makes me pause. The yellow-and-black dry suit Capt. Linda Laraway zipped me into is warm enough to send sweat drops rolling down my back.

I hesitate with my flippers sticking over the edge of the steel diving platform because I know it's down there. Somewhere beneath the lapping waves of Murray Bay, the silent wreck of the Bermuda waits. It's why I've come on this snorkeling charter, after all, but now that I know it's only yards away, yet still invisible, I feel like I'm about to step through the creaky door of a haunted house.

"It's that way," Linda says, pointing straight behind her boat. With that gentle nudge, I clamp my hand over my facemask to hold it in place and step off the boat. The air trapped in the drysuit quickly has me bobbing on the surface. With my face in the water, I can see about 20 feet in any direction. I blow the water from my snorkel, take a breath and kick away from the Linda K, waiting for the 19th-century wreck of the Bermuda, killer of three sailors, to show itself.

The 136-foot wooden schooner sank off Munising on the north-central shore of Michigan's Upper Peninsula in 1870, becoming one of 10,000 or so sailing ships, steamboats and mammoth diesel freighters scattered across all five Great Lakes. Lake Superior alone has claimed about 1,300. Each ship's death added to the vast collection of underwater artifacts, tourist attractions and a thousand winter evenings' worth of stories filled with tragedy, heroism and spectral sailors and ships.

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.

For tourists tracing the lakeshores, lore of the lost ships is never far away. Guides on lighthouse tours spin heart-wrenching tales of ships going down in sight of the towers' beams. Billboards in Michigan's Upper Peninsula invite tourists to board glass-bottom boats and drift over the ribs of shattered hulls. In gift shops, shipwrecks decorate coffee mugs, posters, afghans and kids' T-shirts. Unlucky ships star at museums around the region, including the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, which draws 80,000 people a year to lonely Whitefish Point in the northeastern corner of Michigan's UP.

In shipwreck-heavy areas such as Whitefish Point, Wisconsin's Door County or eastern Michigan's Thunder Bay, shoreline visitors can almost hear the stories carried in on the breeze.

"The legend continues to be there," Stone-house says. "People know the wrecks are out there, even if they don't know the details."

As a graveyard for ships, the Great Lakes are nearly unique, thanks to their icy freshwater depths, which seem to forbid time from touching lost boats. While Caribbean wrecks might show divers no more than a coral outline, vessels that struck bottom in the lakes 120 years ago often look almost like they could sail tomorrow. The lakes may soon lose this distinction, however, as zebra mussels carried in on saltwater ships since the late 1980s are threatening to encrust many wrecks faster than archaeologists and divers can document them.

The race against the mussels is critical to writing the history of Great Lakes wrecks, as mystery still enshrouds about 9,000 of the 10,000 lost ships. Most lost ships have never been found, and the names of many located wrecks are unknown. Each summer brings sport divers exploring the known wrecks, as well as divers and professional researchers following clues from old newspaper stories and insurance reports, recent sonar readings and other leads, hoping to pinpoint a "virgin wreck."

Divers who venture into ships' inner rooms must always be ready for shocking discoveries, thanks to the lakes' slow decay rate. Among the "frequently asked questions" on the state of Michigan's website about underwater resources is, "What should a diver do when human remains are encountered on a shipwreck?"

Those who would search for wrecks must be ready for equal parts archaeology, history, scavenger hunt and finding the guts to stand on a frigid lakebed and stick your head into the darkness of a potential gravesite.

Haunting Folklore

One known gravesite that embodies the lure of the lake wrecks more fully than any other lies 530 feet below Lake Superior's surface about 17 miles off Whitefish Point. Seemingly everyone living around the lakes can tell you where they were on Nov. 10, 1975, when word spread that the 729-foot freighter Edmund Fitzgerald went down. The death toll of all 29 crewmen was relatively low in the annals of Great Lakes wrecks, but the story packed the elements of a monster mythology: the now-it's-there/now-it's-not disappearance from radar, the loss of all hands, the death of what was once the largest ship on the lakes, the haunting Gordon Lightfoot ballad, the still-unexplained cause of its loss, the knowledge that the crew remains aboard in an icy crypt.

"It's perfect folklore," says Chris Winter, a photographer and writer specializing in Great Lakes maritime subjects.

Frederick Stonehouse says, "Because it was all hands lost in mysterious circumstances, that wreck will continue to haunt us until the Second Coming."

Yet Tom Farnquist, who has visited the wreck numerous times and is a Fitz expert, acknowledges this epic wreck is simply the most dramatic chapter in a tale more than three centuries long. "Thirty-thousand people have died in other shipwrecks on the lakes," he says. "And no one knows a thing about them."

Dennis Hale knew 28 of them. The muscular, 230-pound deck hand boarded the 603-foot freighter Daniel J. Morrell in Detroit in November 1966, leaving his wife the same foreboding promise given by so many mariners to so many anxious spouses over the centuries: One last voyage, then he would give up sailing.

A raging storm soon gripped the Morrell, and the general alarm woke Dennis at 2 a.m. With no time to dress, he ran to the deck. Today, as he recalls the story in a matter-of-fact way honed by many tellings, he says he knew the ship was doomed when he looked at the stern. What did he see? "Very little of the stern."

The Morrell cracked in two within minutes, rivets firing from the deck like bullets as the sliding steel plates sheared them off. Dennis and three shipmates launched into the icy waves aboard a raft. He wore only shorts, a heavy woolen pea coat and a life jacket. The four clung to the raft in darkness, plunging through the center of 30-foot waves and gasping for breath on the other side, only to drink in lungsful of frigid winds howling at 70 mph. At times wishing for either quick rescue or quick death, feeling at others that he could hold on for hours, Dennis rode through the night as his shipmates died one by one.

A Shipwreck Survivor

"I did an awful lot of praying," he says. "I really don't think it was my time." The survival time of a person dressed like that in those conditions should be measured in minutes. He lasted 38 hours, relatively unscathed.

Eventually a helicopter swooped down and whisked Dennis, the Morrell's sole survivor, away to doctors who struggled to explain why he was still alive. As the chopper descended, he struggled to lift a half-frozen arm in a wave and mumbled, "I love ya."

For 20 years, the story of the Morrell's death went mostly untold, as Dennis walked away whenever it came up. Now the only witness speaks regularly about the wreck, and ship-loving friends introduce him as a "living legend." He sidles up to tourists at gift shop bookshelves and suggests Sole Survivor before revealing it's his story.

Getting back on a boat took longer. He stayed off them altogether until 1999 and never considered returning to work on a ship after the Morrell.

"No, no, no," Dennis says. "There was a message there for me."

As I paddle through Lake Superior's Murray Bay toward the Bermuda, these stories swirl in my mind. The cold water on my face hints at Dennis Hale's frigid ordeal. I remember reading that scientists say it takes 191 years for the water in this lake to completely change. That means the polite 2-foot waves I'm paddling through may have helped sink the Bermuda, the Fitz and scores of others.

The Ghosts Below

The Bermuda's story is fresh in my memory from Linda Laraway's telling in the cabin of the Linda K. Loaded with iron ore, the Bermuda took shelter from a storm in Munising Bay 135 years ago, leaking through seams loosened by the pounding. The captain and first mate went ashore for help (or to visit the local brothel, depending on the storyteller), leaving three men aboard. Water filled the hull, pulling the Bermuda down and drowning the sleeping crewmen. Salvagers later raised the ship and moved it to nearby Murray Bay, where it sunk again once the ore was removed.

The closer I get to the wreck, the better I feel about Linda's assurance that the drowned crewmen are no longer aboard, but, according to legend, buried on the surrounding shores of Grand Island in graves once marked simply "Sailor."

Then reality wipes away rumination as the massive wooden bow of the Bermuda sharply materializes in the green water. It's closer than I expected, only about 6 feet below me, the prow seemingly threatening to jab me right in the chest and reel me in. Shafts of sunlight reveal the deck's wide oak boards, and I can follow their grain until they disappear in the gloom. Caulk more than a century old still shows between some of the planks. I instinctively swim along the outside of the rail rather than over the deck, feeling with an unexplainable certainty that I don't want to get too close.

Circling the wreck with gentle kicks of my flippers, I hear only the lonely sound of my own steady breathing through the snorkel. The bay's gentle waves want to wash me across the deck, over the gaping rear hatch. Linda told me that divers love to enter that hatch and swim the length of the Bermuda below decks, but I can't even bring myself to drift over the black hole, knowing that three men drowned somewhere down there. The quicksilver bubble rising from below decks probably came from some fish, but who's to say?

Snapping a few pictures on my waterproof camera, I consider how different these shots will be from the usual vacation photos of grinning families. But these images, I'm certain, are the ones that will cast a spell over friends at home, drawing them irresistibly with me into the world of the shipwrecks and the mighty lakes.

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