10 Great Lakes Shipwrecks

Accidents involving vessels in the seas and oceans are not new. Storms, icebergs, and many other natural and artificial calamities have left thousands of shipwrecks lying on the seabed.

However, it’s just not the oceans and seas where vessels meet with accidents. Some of the fresh-water bodies worldwide also witnessed a significant number of vessels sinking and resting under the water for years.

The Great Lakes of North America is one such prominent fresh-water body.

The Great Lakes, located in North America on the Canada-US border, form an important internal navigable channel in the Central North American region.

Connecting the Atlantic Ocean through the Saint Lawrence River, the Great Lake consists of five water bodies including Lakes Superior, Huron, Michigan,  Erie, and Ontario.

Being the largest group of freshwater lakes globally by total area, the Great Lakes have a rich history of marine transportation since the 17th century.

However, traversing through these waterways isn’t easy, and many ships in the past have succumbed and been irrevocably lost in their swirling depths.

Having sea-like features such as rolling waves, strong currents and great depths, these water bodies, also known as inland seas, offer a difficult time for sailors when traversing through the region.

Innumerable shipwrecks of such hapless vessels have been discovered in the Great Lakes, which has given rise to the connotation – Shipwrecks of the Great Lakes. There is also a notable museum established as an educational memorial on these Great Lakes shipwrecks.

According to the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, the lakes have caused the sinking of around 6,000 ships and the death of 30,000 people.

However, historian Mark Thompson, the author of Graveyard of the Lakes, has estimated that there are over 25,000 shipwrecks at the bottom of the Great Lakes. With the fascinating stories behind their sinking, some of the shipwrecks in the Great Lakes are now popular diving destinations.

Here is a list of ten such noteworthy shipwrecks of the Great Lakes.

Le Griffon

Le Griffon, a 17th-century barque, is one of the greatest mysteries of the Great Lakes. She went missing in Lake Michigan in 1679 with a crew of six. Le Griffon is believed to be the first full-sized sailing ship to have traversed the upper reaches of the Great Lakes of North America.

There have been over twenty claims made regarding its discovery in the past, with most having been proven wrong. Built by French explorer René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, Le Griffon had reached an island in Lake Michigan in 1679 after crossing Lake Erie and Lake Huron. However, during her return trip from the island to Niagara, the vessel went missing in an area now known as Green Bay.

Le Griffon shipwreck
Representation image

In 2001, a famous Great Lakes shipwreck hunter, Steve Libert, claimed her wreck in Northern Lake Michigan near Poverty Island. Similarly, in 2014, treasure hunters Kevin Dykstra and Frederick J. Monroe claimed the discovery of the wreck near Frankfort, Michigan.

Edmund Fitzgerald

The saga of the vessel Edmund Fitzgerald is one of the most popularly recounted Great Lake shipwreck anecdotes. Launched in 1958, Fitzgerald was the largest ship on the Great Lakes, for thirteen years to come, until 1971.

The American Great Lakes freighter was fatally wrecked on Lake Superior during the winter of 1975, with all her crew losing their lives.

The vessel was caught in a severe storm while travelling from Superior, Wisconsin, to a steel mill near Detroit and sank in Canadian waters. The exact cause of the ship sinking with no outward appearances of serious damage is still heavily debated. The prominent theories include the vessel running aground or suffering damage during the storm.

The wreck of Edmund Fitzgerald was discovered by a U.S. Navy Lockheed P-3 Orion aircraft in November 1975, laying around 15 miles west of Deadman’s Cove, Ontario. A noteworthy find from the wreckage remains the vessel’s gong, now proudly exhibited in the Shipwreck Museum dedicated especially to such Great Lakes’ casualties and wrecks.

Carl D. Bradley

SS Carl D. Bradley, a Great Lakes freighter, was built in 1927 and was popular as the “Queen of the Lakes” as it was the longest and largest freighter on the waters of the Great Lakes during its period. She was built by American Shipbuilding based out of Ohio.

This self-unloading freighter was operated by Bradley Transportation and was used as both an icebreaker and a freighter. In 1957, she collided with another vessel, the MV White Rose, resulting in damage to her hull. The following year, the vessel ran aground multiple times, but these occurrences were never reported to the authorities. She was caught in a storm in November of the same year and sank in Lake Michigan, killing 33 of the 35 crew members.

The vessel’s sinking was caused by structural damage resulting from the poor choice of steel used in her construction. The wreck of Carl D. Bradley, laying 360 feet under the water, was discovered in 1959 by the Army Corps of Engineers.

Fedora

The 282-foot-long bulk carrier Fedora was one of the larger classes of freighters during the late 19th century. Unfortunately, the vessel met with a fire accident in 1901 when she was en route to Ashland from Duluth to bring iron ore. This was a similar journey to the one undertaken by the ill-fated Edmund Fitzgerald.

One of the stoutest vessels built at its time, the Fedora met its unprecedented fate because of a fire breaking out in its engine cabin. Though none of the crew aboard the vessel lost their lives, the Fedora soon became a lost cause as it burned and eventually sank into the waters of Chicago Creek in Buffalo Bay.

The Great Lake shipwreck of the vessel Fedora lies in the depths of Lake Superior. Salvage operations were conducted in November 1901, and essential machinery was recovered for further use. The charred hull is a dangerous diving and boating site since portions of the vessel reach the surface and can damage vessels.

John B. Cowle

Coming under the class of Great Lakes bulk freighters known as “tin pans,” the 7-year-old SS John B. Cowle sank in 1909 to a freak disaster involving the newly christened freighter SS Isaac M Scott. John B. Cowle was fatally wrecked in a collision with another, killing 14 of the 24 crew members aboard.

Thick sheets of fog prevented clear visibility, which led to the vessels’ collision. However, the colliding vessel was instrumental in saving many of the surviving members from the wrecked Cowle ship. The vessel’s wreck was discovered in 1972 and is one of the most remarkable and well-preserved wrecks in Lake Superior. The surviving crew members were rescued by SS Scott, which resulted in fewer deaths than estimated.

SS John B Cowle was involved in other minor accidents, including a collision with SS Erin, that resulted in the death of a few crew members working on the Erin at that time. She was built by Jenks Shipbuilding and was operated by the Cowle Transportation Company. Immediately after the sinking of John B. Cowle, a second John B. Cowle was put into service in 1910. The second vessel was successfully operated till 1978.

Vienna

Lost forever to the waters of Lake Superior, the steamship Vienna went down fatally in September 1892 after colliding with another steamship accidentally that was coming at her from the opposite direction.

Built in 1873, Vienna had witnessed a series of accidents during her 19-year career. It sank three years after her launch. During the final accident, both the vessels, Vienna and Nipigon, were heavy with a cargo of iron ore. It is supposed that the multiple repairs on her hull due to the numerous accidents she was a part of contributing to a weakened structure that easily broke apart on collision with the Nipigon.

Though the other vessel did try to tug the Vienna to safety, the shoals prevented a successful rescuing operation. No lives were lost owing to swift action by the Nipigon. At the time, a schooner, the Mattie C Bell, was towed by Vienna while heavily laden with iron ore. The Bell survived the sinking. The wreck of the vessel was discovered in 1975, lying 120 to 148 feet under the water.

The remains of Vienna lay in Whitefish Bay and was a famous diving site. However, it became a protected and restricted region after the death of four scuba divers. She is presently part of an Underwater Preserve created by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources with strict regulations on artefacts brought up by divers.

Lady Elgin

Lady Elgin, a wooden-hulled steamship, was built in 1851 and served on the Great Lakes as a passenger ship. On September 6, 1860, while returning from Chicago with Milwaukee’s Union Guard members after attending a campaign speech by Stephen A, the vessel sank in an ill-fated accident.

The 252-foot Lady Elgin faced a strong gale and was rammed by the schooner Augusta of Oswego. Unfortunately, due to the damages caused by the collision, the vessel sank sometime later, resulting in the death of more than 300 people. Though the exact number remains doubtful since the manifest was lost during the accident, it remains one of the worst shipwrecks of the region.

In 1989, the wreck of the Lady Elgin was discovered off Highwood, Illinois, by Harry Zych. Due to an objection by the owner, she is not listed on the National Register of Historic Places despite her eligibility. The wreck site of Lady Elgin, with debris spread across four sites lying at depths of 50-60 feet of water, has been catalogued by the Underwater Archaeological Society of Chicago. After the accident, maritime regulations included a clause that equipped vessels with running lights to prevent such accidents. Records obtained from the subsequent investigations note how the other vessel misjudged the distance between them, resulting in the fatal collision.

Samuel Mather

The SS Samuel Mather is yet another example of two vessels colliding against each other in the perilous waters of Whitefish Bay on the US-Canada border. While shipping wheat from the port of Duluth, Samuel Mather collided with a steamer- Brazil, early in the morning of November 1981 due to thick fog along Lake Superior.

The entire crew of Samuel Mather was safely rescued by the steamer Brazil. Currently, the wreck of the Mather lies in 180 feet of water, 18 miles from the harbour at Whitefish Point. Samuel Mather is one of the most important exploratory and diving sites for enthusiasts, especially on its location. She is also nearly intact, providing divers with a chance to safely explore the wreck without fear of injury.

The Whitefish Point Underwater Reserve manages the wreck site, and artefacts are on display at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum. However, there have been repeated attempts to steal the artefacts, and Michigan State owns them at present.

Prins Willem V

The 258-foot freighter Prins Willem V sank in Lake Michigan in October 1964 after sailing between Europe and the United States for the Orange Line years since 1949. Constructed by the Van Vlier Company, the Prins had survived a Nazi bombing attempt and was refitted for commercial use in 1949. The Dutch freighter capsized three miles off Milwaukee Harbor after colliding with a barge of the Sinclair Oil Company. All crew members aboard the vessel were rescued.

Following the accident, many attempts to raise the vessel in 1958, 1961, and some after 1965 but all failed. The ownership of the Prins was transferred multiple times between owners to raise the vessel safely. Today, the wreck is owned and operated by the Wisconsin State and is a prominent diving site. Resting intact on its starboard side at about 80ft, the wreck of Prins Willem V, known as the “Willie”, is one of the most popular wrecks in Milwaukee.

John M. Osborn

In this list of Great Lakes Shipwrecks, the final vessel is the wooden steam barge John M. Osborn, which was wrecked in the Whitefish Point in 1884. Built by the Morley and Hill Company of Michigan, she was operated by the Cleveland Iron Mining Company.

Like many of the aforementioned vessels, hazy and misty conditions prevented the know-how on navigating around an approaching vessel, causing both John M. Osborn and the steel-hulled Alberta to collide with the Osborn being wrecked fatally.

A few crew members lost their lives in the accident towards the end of the 19th century. The wreck of John M. Osborn was discovered 100 years after the accident, in 1984, laying in 165 feet of water in Whitefish Bay of Lake Superior. A shipwreck museum and a foundation society to allow enthusiasts to understand more about these wreckages have been established.

Through such tangible organizations, a greater reach about the details and the findings of these shipwrecks is hoped to be achieved. In addition, these organizations also protect heritage sites and underwater preserves where diving enthusiasts can enjoy these shipwrecks from around the world.

 

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6 Comments

  1. What about the SS. Daniel J. Morrell which foundered in 1966? She was sailing down the thumb of Lake Huron in a terrible storm when the strength of the waves caused her to hog in the middle. A few minutes later she broke in two, the bow sank first while the stern continued on for another five miles before it finally vanished under Huron’s dark depths. Out of a crew of twenty-nine men, only the late Dennis Hale survived.

  2. I am working with Dennis Hale’s widow and the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum o do an exhibit on the MORRELL. We are trying to contact the 29 surviving families and believe we will solve what happened on the stern that night based on clues we have uncovered. If anyone knows any of the 29 families’ descendants, please reach us at jmdhoops@ hotmail.com

  3. My great-grandfather died in a Nov. 1886 storm on Lake Superior that sounds much like the storm that took the Edmund Fitzgerald. He was 1st mate on the Lucerne (no survivors); the plan had been to haul iron ore back to Cleveland.

  4. Last week I read of an author who wrote about the shipwrecks in the Great Lakes. Unfortunately I didn’t write down the author’s name, but I think he was from the Rochester area. The book has apparently just been published. Can you provide me with his name and perhaps even how I can get a copy of the book?

    Thank you so much.

  5. rest in peace / 45 th anniersary… i arrived ontario 1975 and returned ireland 1981 . did noy realise the size of this ship . or tragedy of ALL CREW

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