Lake Michigan's shipwreck graveyard

NOW: Lake Michigan’s shipwreck graveyard


For centuries the Great Lakes have served as a passage for trading and delivering goods. Trading posts quickly grew to become the cities we know today.

While they have served as a way of life and helped our area thrive – they’ve also left heart ache and despair, for some. We go down to the bottom of the lake where the shipwreck graveyard still lies today.

The first thing that comes to mind for many when talking about shipwrecks in the Great Lakes is the infamous Edmund Fitzgerald.

On November 10th, 1975 waves piled higher than 24 feet on Lake Superior, sinking the 729 foot freighter, killing all 29 people on board. It took only minutes for the vessel to vanish.

Sadly, this was a common ending for many ships due to the "Gales of November."

Taras Lyssenko, an author and naval researcher from the suburbs of Chicago, started studying Great Lakes shipwrecks decades ago. He got started looking for shipwrecks just as a group of boys who liked to explore things as they took out a small fishing boat for these adventures.

Over the years they have found anything from schooners to steam vessels with everything still on-board!

“We never counted, over the years in all the different places we looked for shipwrecks, I'd say several hundred, lots of them and there is lots in the lake," Lyssenko said.

While his team will try to dive any shallow shipwrecks found, sometimes the water is too deep for divers, so state-of-the-art technology must be used.

"We use what we call a side-scan sonar to get an image of what is on the bottom and then we use remotely operated vehicles, which is really just underwater robots, to go down and videotape, take a look at what’s there and what kind of condition," Lyssenko said.

His crew recently found a ship in the southern end of Lake Michigan that many thought was lost forever -- the Chicora. It sank in 1895 and was only discovered just over a year ago.

When it was in its glory days, it ran trips between Milwaukee, St. Joseph and Chicago.

Before its fatal end, it was on its way to St. Joseph, Michigan on its final trip from Milwaukee.

"The barometer dropped, the air pressure dropped really quickly so a big storm came up and sank her. She was a big ship, she was 200 feet long," Lyssenko said.

Coast Guard Executive Petty Officer Matthew Binns, who is stationed in St. Joseph, Michigan, is no stranger to the high winds and waves either.

"The weather that we have here changes frequently and freak storms just pull up and people don’t, they’re not checking the weather, they’re not making sure that they are ready for whatever happens out there and then sometimes it ends badly," Binns said.

These ‘big storms’ are all too common for the Great Lakes. They are strong low pressure systems that move through the Midwest - usually during the fall season. These systems are typically tightly wrapped with very cold air moving in from the north and warm air from the south. As the air converges at the center, it rises - causing the area of low pressure to continue to drop and strengthen.

Wind speeds have been recorded over 60 mph on Lake Michigan - generating waves over 20 feet! That’s how the “Gales of November” earned its distinction.

Binns and other Coast Guardsmen, work hard to help prevent anymore shipwreck tragedies like the Chicora and Fitzgerald.

Binns said, “We train in all weather conditions, from sea state to winds, gusting winds and things like that. We train everything from de-watering vessels, to air rescues, vessels and vessel personnel transfer. Vessel to helicopter transfer.”

But even with today’s technology and support from our Coast Guard - there are no rules that say a vessel cannot leave. The captain of the port is the only one that can make that call. So if someone made the poor decision to go out during a bad storm, a shipwreck like the ones in the past could happen again.

There are still shipwrecks at the bottom of the lake that are yet to be discovered! The history, encapsulated on the bottom of the lake could be yours to see too!

You can scuba dive to see some of the shallow shipwrecks in Lake Michigan through Michigan Diving Center in Spring Lake, Michigan or more locally, there is a diving club called Mud Club.

One thing that Lyssenko really stressed was the due to an invasive species, called the quagga mussel, and the rough nature of Lake Michigan during big storms, these shipwrecks won't be preserved well.

"It’s so important to find and document and to show people what is really there. We are running out of time to save our history. We can’t save it physically but we can save it video wise," Lyssenko said.

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