High Waters in the Great Lakes Reveal Two Centuries-Old Shipwrecks

In the month of April alone, the remnants of two historic vessels washed up on Lake Michigan’s shores

Shipwreck in Lake Michigan
The wreckage of a mid-19th century ship washed ashore north of Ludington, Michigan, on April 24. Mason County Historical Society

The depths of the Great Lakes are littered with the sodden remains of an estimated 6,000 sunken ships. Many of these wrecks—preserved by the cold, fresh water of the so-called inland seas—are nearly pristine, frozen in their final death throes for centuries.

This month, waves and high water levels unearthed two historic shipwrecks on the shores of Lake Michigan, reports Lynn Moore for MLive. Experts from the Michigan Shipwreck Research Association (MSRA) identified the first, discovered near the city of Manistique on April 20, as an early 20th-century schooner named after part-owner Rokus Kanters, a marine contractor and the former mayor of Holland, Michigan. The second, which washed up near Ludington on April 24, has yet to be identified but is thought to date back to the mid-19th century, according to the Port of Ludington Maritime Museum.

The high water levels divulging these ancient wrecks have plagued the Great Lakes region over the past several years, eroding its beaches and threatening lakefront properties.

“We’re seeing some of the highest water levels in recorded history on the Great Lakes, and that’s the result of very wet weather experienced over the last several years,” Keith Kompoltowicz, chief of watershed hydrology for the Detroit district of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, told the Washington Post’s Kim Frauhammer in 2019.

Climate change is the simple explanation for the region’s unprecedented weather and rising water levels, but in lakes, the situation is more complicated than in seas. Instead of an inexorable march upward, the Great Lakes are expected to seesaw between extremes, according to the Post. That means both flooded basements and shipping lanes too shallow for cargo ships loom in the lakes’ future.

Lake Michigan shipwreck
The unidentified ship bears the hallmarks of vessels built between the 1850s and 1880s, according to the Port of Ludington Maritime Museum. Mason County Historical Society

MSRA experts identified R. Kanters—the more recent of the two shipwrecks—by tracking down photographs, old newspapers and historic records following a video call with the local man who happened upon the wreck, reports Emily Bingham in a separate story for MLive. Records indicate that the 112-foot-long, double-masted schooner sank on September 7, 1903, after getting stuck in shallow water south of Manistique during a storm.

Just three days after its reappearance, the wreck had already started to sink back into the shores of Lake Michigan, reports Brent Ashcroft for local broadcast station WZZM 13.

The older, unidentified ship bears the hallmarks of vessels built between the 1850s and 1880s, according to the Port of Ludington Maritime Museum. Its hull fragment measures roughly 32 feet long and 8 feet wide, according to local broadcast station WWMT3.

The area where the 19th-century ship was discovered is notoriously hazardous for ships: More than 300 vessels have grounded along the eastern shore of Lake Michigan over the past 170 years, the museum notes in a Facebook post. Collaborative research with the MSRA has yielded the names of five vessels that may be responsible for the chunk of hull: The J.B. Skinner, built in 1841; the George F. Foster, built in 1852; the J.O. Moss, built in 1863; the Eclipse, built in 1852; and the Orphan Boy, built in 1862.

The two newly discovered wrecks may soon be added to a recently launched interactive map of the shipwrecks found in Michigan’s state waters. And for those looking to learn more about the thousands of ships lost in the Great Lakes, the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum on the shores of Lake Superior offers a wealth of information and artifacts. The museum is located at Whitefish Point, a treacherous area known for possessing a trove of some 200 shipwrecks.

Speaking with Smithsonian magazine’s Arcynta Ali Childs in 2011, Sean Ley, the museum’s development officer, explained, “The reason there are so many wrecks along there is because there are no natural harbors for ships to hide when they have these huge storms. Whitefish Bay is kind of a natural bay, and with its point sticking out, it does provide a great deal of protection for ships that are lost.”

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