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Death on the Lake

The ships that rest at the bottom of the Great Superior is well known as the roughest of the Great Lakes. The night the 729-foot freighter Edmund Fitzgerald perished with all 29 hands, monstrous waves topping 35-feet swept Superior. Lake Huron offers her own brand of hell evidenced by the eight steel freighters lost with all hands in the infamous storm of November 1913. The Lower Lakes, Erie and Ontario also claimed their share of shipwrecks, especially schooners in the early days of settlement.    
   Historians give ballpark figures of 7,500 shipwrecks in all of the Great Lakes with a guesstimate of 30,000 victims. Old Lake Michigan leads the pack with an estimated 2,500 shipwrecks and perhaps as many as 8,000 dead. More than 70 percent of the losses occurred in the fall, when lake gales blow hard and fast.    
   The sheer amount of shipping on Lake Michigan is the reason her bottom is littered with broken hulls. In the 1870s, Chicago was the busiest port in the country with a parade of ships coming and going astounding the world. Milwaukee was no slouch either, and smaller ports like St. Joseph, Benton Harbor, Michigan, Michigan City, Indiana and Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, among others, added their shares to the total. In short, when a storm barreled into Lake Michigan, there were lots of targets for shipwreck. The October 1880 storm that sank the 197-foot wooden steamer Alpena with all aboard, estimated at around 100 folks, destroyed another 90 ships or so on the lake. Given Lake Michigan’s north-south orientation, winds from either direction can build terrific seas over a fetch of more than 300 miles.   
   Mariners were often caught in storms that simply overwhelmed them, their ships unable to withstand the battering seas. In mid-summer, Michigan may rest calm and easy, but come the gales of November, old-time sailors knew and know it’s time to be tucked into a safe harbor until next spring.   
   The earliest shipwreck on the lake was the Griffin, a 70-foot or so sailboat built in Niagara on Lake Ontario for the famous French explorer LaSalle. She disappeared in a gale in 1679 somewhere in the northern lake with all hands. Legend claims her captain laughed off the warning of local Indians that a storm was brewing. “What could ignorant savages know?” Some sailors claim her ghost still sails the lake, just visible through stormy seas as she tries to finish her interrupted trip.   
   The tragic sinking of the luxurious passenger steamer Lady Elgin on September 7, 1860, after colliding with the schooner Augusta in darkness and heavy weather off Winnetka, had horrible consequences for many Milwaukee families. An estimated 297 of the 400 people aboard perished in the cold and unforgiving lake, most from the Irish First Ward. Period newspapers claimed roughly 1,000 children were orphaned in the disaster.    
   The worst catastrophe not only on this lake but also in the entire Great Lakes was the sinking of the passenger steamer Eastland on July 24, 1915. The 265-foot vessel capsized while pulling away from her Chicago River dock for an excursion. When she rolled over, hundreds of people—men, women and children—were trapped below decks or thrown into the water. After the gristly counting was finally finished, an estimated 845 people were killed. Later investigation found the design was the culprit, too high a center of gravity, poor ballasting and too much heavy gear on the top deck. Long forgotten is the fact that more passengers (845) lost their lives on the Eastland than the Titanic (694). Including the crew, a total of 1,532 folks died on the Titanic.   
   The largest ship ever lost on the lake is the 623-foot steel freighter Carl D. Bradley. The big self-unloader was bound to her homeport of Rogers City, Michigan, on Lake Huron for winter lay-up when a furious November 1958 gale crashed into her. Mountainous 25-foot seas and screaming 75-mph winds hammered the steamer for hours as she struggled northward to the Straits of Mackinac. Just west of Beaver Island, in the northern lake, she suddenly broke in two, the bow and stern hanging nearly vertical before sliding into the dark depths. Although many of the 33-man crew made it off the sinking ship, only two survived the wild lake to be rescued from an open life raft the following day by the Coast Guard. The calamity echoed hard through small Rogers City, with reportedly 53 children losing their fathers and 23 women their husbands.   
   Today many of Lake Michigan’s shipwrecks are popular targets for recreational divers allowing the rare opportunity to reach out and touch history, to gain a sense of the past lost to folks cursed to stay ashore. All the shipwrecks are to a greater or lesser degree “time capsules,” moments frozen in history, silent tributes to awesome power of old Lake Michigan.

Published: August 09, 2009
Issue: Fall 2009 Water Issue