The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, located at Whitefish Point in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, was founded in 1978 by a group of teachers, divers and shipwreck enthusiasts who were interested in exploring the area around Whitefish Point. The museum is home to 19 different exhibits incorporating artifacts that were raised from wrecks, ship models and a memorial to those lost in the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. In addition to the museum, visitors can also see the restored lighthouse keeper’s quarters, the fog signal building, the surf boat house and the Whitefish Point bird observatory. “We were hoping to find shipwrecks and we were successful, as far as that went,” says Sean Ley, development officer for the museum. He spoke with Smithsonian.com about the history of shipwrecks in the Great Lakes region and why the museum is such a popular tourist destination.
Why is there a shipwreck museum at Whitefish Point?
In all five Great Lakes, we know there are over 6,000 shipwrecks with over 30,000 lives having been lost. Lake Superior is perhaps one of the most dramatic, although it doesn’t have the highest concentration of shipwrecks. It is the biggest water of the five Great Lakes and has seas that sweep across from the northwest to the southeast of the lake with tremendous force. Of the 550 known wrecks in Lake Superior, well over 200 rest along the shoreline from Whitefish Point, which is where our museum is, west to the town of Munising. 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.
Many people seem fascinated by shipwrecks. Why is that?
The most modern connection to shipwrecks was the loss of the Edmund Fitzgerald on November 10, 1975, in Lake Superior. The Fitzgerald was a 729-foot modern freighter with radio, radar and up-to-date safety equipment. Suddenly, she disappeared off the radar screen with no survivors; that was not supposed to happen during the modern day. That shipwreck is one of the biggest mysteries because it’s so recent and because no one knows exactly why the ship was lost. Canadian folk singer Gordon Lightfoot wrote the song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” in 1976.
Before the Fitzgerald there were two other major losses on the Great Lakes— the Daniel J. Morrell in November 1966 in Lake Huron and the Carl D. Bradley in November 1958 in northern Lake Michigan.
Describe the worst shipwreck in the history of the Great Lakes.
In terms of loss of life, hands down, that’s called the SS Eastland, which went down in the Chicago River on July 24, 1915. For whatever reason, the ship turned over onto its port side right there in the river. Passengers either wanted to see something in the river and they went to port side, or the engineer improperly ballasted the ship, or it wasn’t a stable ship to begin, but she flipped over right into the Chicago River, not terribly deep water maybe 20-30 feet, and killed 844 passengers and crew. It still remains the worst loss of life on any single shipwreck in the Great Lakes.
How has the museum been received, both by the public and families who have lost relatives in shipwrecks?
We constantly hear from people who lost loved ones to shipwrecks, and they want to find out more about their ancestor who was aboard a ship and how he lost his life on it. We get a lot of inquiries about that. The population of Whitefish Township, where the museum us, is only about 550 people, and each year we get an average of 70,000 visitors to Whitefish Point. People want to see something different.
You’ve worked at the museum for 15 years. What is it about shipwrecks that fascinates you?
It primarily has to do with a lifelong interest in shipwrecks that was generated when I was a young boy. I grew up in Winnetka, Illinois, not far away from where the Eastland tipped over. As a matter of fact, on September 8, 1860, a very famous Great Lakes wreck called the Lady Elgin went down right off of Winnetka, so when I was a kid, there were parts of the Lady Elgin still on the beach. There are graves of those lost who washed ashore from the Lady Elgin and were buried in the bluff right there. I ended up pursuing an arts career but I was always associated with the shipwreck historical society. It’s just a very interesting piece of culture, of U.S. history, to be affiliated with.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve found since you’ve been at the shipwreck museum?
What I would say is most surprising since the early days is the invasion of zebra mussels in the Great Lakes. Zebra mussels are an invasive species brought in by saltwater vessels coming through the St. Lawrence into the Great Lakes, and we can’t get rid of them. Many dive sites in the lower lakes are just covered with destructive zebra mussels, so scuba divers can dive on historic wrecks but they don’t look like ships anymore, they look like a coral reef, filled with zebra mussels. I mean millions of zebra mussels. Lake Superior, so far, has not been invaded.
Do shipwrecks still occur?
Oh yes they do. One might think they wouldn’t, but that’s what they thought about the Titanic and the Fitzgerald. Even with the latest safety equipment, a ship is still a vessel that’s been constructed a certain way. If it takes on water in a way it shouldn’t, just the physical property of water and buoyancy will cause it to flip.
There hasn’t been a shipwreck quite as a dramatic as the Fitzgerald. In 1989, the Coast Guard lost a vessel up here called the Mesquite, but there was no loss of life. There are some fishing boats that have been lost to collision and recreational vessels, but I don’t think we’ve had a shipwreck with significant loss of life since the Fitzgerald when down.
Anything can happen and certainly there are many organizations and safety procedures that try to prevent shipwrecks but you won’t find anyone who goes on the lakes who will say ‘I guarantee you we will not get in a shipwreck.’ The danger is always there. And the awareness of the danger keeps you on your guard so that you are a little more cautious. One old gentleman once told me, “Constant vigilance is the price you pay for traveling on the Great Lakes.”
The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, owned and operated by the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society, is open daily from May 1 to October 31. Accessible by automobile, the museum features shipwrecks, and the history of the U.S. lifesaving service, the U.S. lighthouse service and the U.S. Coast Guard, as well as other exhibits. For more information, visit the museum online or call 1-800-635-1742.