8 Famous Shipwrecks on Lake Michigan
By Matt Stofsky
On a clear day, the murky waters of Lake Michigan seem to open up, and a world of shipwrecks below the surface is revealed. Out of an estimated 6000 maritime disasters on the Great Lakes, Lake Michigan played host to 1500 shipwrecks. (To this day, Great Lakes commerce remains a dangerous business; the lakes are unpredictable, massive, and unforgiving.) Here are just eight of the famous shipwrecks that can be found at the bottom of the lake.
1. LADY ELGIN
The sinking of the Lady Elgin on September 8, 1860 resulted in the most open water deaths in the history of the Great Lakes. During a strong gale, the 252-foot wooden hulled steamship was rammed by a much smaller vessel, the 129-foot schooner Augusta, at a speed of 11 knots. Though the Augusta’s second mate had reportedly spotted the Lady Elgin half an hour before the collision, the schooner did not correct its course until just 10 minutes before impact.
The captain of the Augusta sailed away, believing that his schooner had in fact sustained more damage than the sturdy steamer, and according to the clerk of the Lady Elgin, at the moment of impact there was music and dancing in the forward cabin. But the Augusta had torn a hole in the port side of the Lady Elgin. Fifty cows in the cargo hold were pushed over the side in order to lighten the ship, while appliances and other heavy items were moved in an attempt to bring the gash left by the Augusta above the water level. A lifeboat was lowered, but not secured, and it floated away before passengers could board it.
All told, over 300 people lost their lives in the disaster. As a result, a law was passed a few years later mandating that all ships crossing the Great Lakes must have running lights. The wreck of the Lady Elgin was largely forgotten until the mid-1970s, when a shipwreck enthusiast named Harry Zych began searching for it, and discovered the wreck in 1989. Today, the majority of the shipwreck lies several miles off the Illinois coast in four main wreckage sites, which can be explored by the public, with permission from Zych.
2. SS CARL D. BRADLEY
Between 1927 and 1949, the 639-foot SS Carl D. Bradley was the largest ship on the Great Lakes. As the “Queen of the Lakes” (the term used for the longest ship on the lakes), it was an engineering marvel—the largest and longest self-unloading freighter of its era. The Carl Bradley served as an icebreaker as well as a freighter used to haul limestone from Lake Superior and Lake Huron to Lake Michigan’s deepwater ports. In 1957, the Carl Bradley collided with another ship, the MV White Rose, on the St. Clair River, resulting in damage to the hull.
This structural damage is said to have contributed to the disaster that befell the ship and its crew in 1958. On the evening of November 18, the Carl Bradley was returning from a delivery in Gary, Indiana, heading north in upper Lake Michigan, when a massive gale-force storm hit. With winds reaching up to 65 miles per hour, and waves up to 20 feet tall, the storm battered the massive freighter until around 5:30 p.m., when the hull began cracking in two. Despite three radio calls of Mayday before the power lines were severed, the Carl Bradley went down before a rescue attempt could be mounted. Only two out of its 35 crewmen survived.
In 1959, the wreck of the Bradley was discovered using sonar technology by the Army Corps of Engineers, sitting 360 feet under the water. The discovery did little to answer the question of exactly how the huge ship sunk. The two survivors of the wreck claimed that they witnessed the ship break in two, but the sonar imaging did not confirm this claim. It wasn’t until 1997 that this claim was verified. Two maritime writers and adventurers took a submersible down to view the wreck, bringing with them one of the survivors, Watchman Frank Mays. They were greeted by two separate pieces of the ship, lodged upright in the mud, 90 feet apart.
3. THE ALPENA
The Alpena was a Great Lakes steamboat that conveyed people and supplies throughout the Midwest beginning in 1866. The ship was notable for its twin 24-foot side wheels and partially visible engine. No one knows where the ship’s final resting place actually is, but if the wreck is ever located, these distinctive features will help identify it.
Weather patterns on Lake Michigan are notoriously unpredictable, and it was a sudden storm that would come to be called “The Big Blow” that sunk the Alpena in 1880 (not to be confused with another “Big Blow” on the lakes in 1913). When the ship left Grand Haven, Michigan October 15 at 10 p.m. laden with passengers and a cargo of apples, en route to Chicago 108 miles away, the weather was perfect—calm and sunny, with temperatures ranging from 60 to 70 degrees. Once the vessel was underway, the crew noted a change in the winds, indicating a possible storm. The steamer’s veteran captain apparently figured that the Alpena would reach Chicago before the worst of it hit. A few hours later, he was proven fatally wrong.
By 3 a.m., the temperature had dropped to below zero and gale-force winds along with snow and ice began hammering the lake. The Alpena was reportedly spotted at dawn struggling in storm-tossed waves. The next time she was sighted, the ship had capsized. Only after the storm abated was the extent of the devastation clear: The steamer had been battered so badly by the storm that the ship's wreckage, as well as the bodies of its victims, were spread across 70 miles of beaches.
Over 90 ships went down during “The Big Blow” on Lake Michigan. The Alpena left no survivors and no trace of its present whereabouts.
4. SS APPOMATTOX
One of the largest wooden ships ever constructed for use on the Great Lakes, the SS Appomattox measured 319 feet, featured a sturdy hull and had a massive triple expansion steam engine. The ship hauled iron ore and coal to ports all over the Midwest until a stroke of bad luck befell her on the night of November 2, 1905. Loaded with a full cargo hold of coal off the coast of Wisconsin, the huge wooden steamer was blinded by smog from the busy port of Milwaukee. As a result, the Appomattox ran aground. Despite two weeks of effort to free her, the ship remained stuck and eventually abandoned. Today, the Appomattox sits in 15 to 20 feet of water, 150 yards out from the beach in Shorewood, Wisconsin, near Milwaukee, and remains remarkably intact. The wreck is a popular dive site and a living reminder of the perils of shipping on Lake Michigan.
5. ROUSE SIMMONS
The schooner Rouse Simmons is one of the most legendary shipwrecks in the history of Lake Michigan commerce. The 123.5-foot ship was christened in 1868, a point in the history of Great Lakes shipping when sails were still the dominant form of power, soon to be eclipsed by steamers. The Rouse Simmons spent several decades traveling the Lakes in the service of prominent Midwestern lumber barons. After years of crisscrossing the perilous Great Lakes waterways, the schooner was in desperate need of repairs at the turn of the century, by which point the Rouse Simmons had joined about two dozen other ships in hauling Christmas trees from Michigan to Chicago during the holiday season. The Rouse Simmons remains the best-remembered of these “Christmas tree ships.” The gregarious captain Herman Schuenemann would sell trees off his deck in the port of Chicago, to the delight of countless families. On Friday, November 22, 1912, the schooner left the dock at Thompson, Michigan, carrying thousands of Christmas trees in its holds and on its decks.
What happened when this Christmas tree ship left port is not exactly known. What is known is that a powerful November gale caused the ship to founder, possibly due to its poor condition and heavy load. None of the crew survived, and Christmas trees continued to wash up on the shores of Lake Michigan in the following weeks. The loss of the Rouse Simmons heralded the end of the schooner era on Lake Michigan. The ship has spawned numerous legends and ghost stories, and its legacy is celebrated every December, when the Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw makes a ceremonial run from Michigan to Chicago to deliver Christmas trees to the less fortunate.
For years, the location of the wreck remained a mystery. In fact, its discovery in 1971 was an accident. A local scuba diver named Gordon Kent Bellrichard was using sonar to search the bottom of Lake Michigan near Two Rivers, Wisconsin for the wreck of the Vernon, a huge steamer that sunk in 1887. Instead, he came upon the three-masted Rouse Simmons, resting well-preserved in the mud in 172 feet of water. The wreck had eluded searchers and divers for decades and can now be explored six miles northeast of Rawley Point, Wisconsin.
6. SS ANNA C. MINCH
The SS Anna C. Minch was a 380-foot steel steamer built in 1903 in Cleveland, Ohio. The steamer fell victim to one of the worst winter storms in the history of Lake Michigan and the Midwest as a whole—the Armistice Day Blizzard, which took place on November 11, 1940 and claimed three freighters, including the Anna Minch. The storm brought winds of at least 80 miles per hour along with 20-foot waves on the Lake. One theory is that the Anna Minch collided with the William B. Davock, another ship that later sunk or may have just sunk in the storm. Rescue attempts continued for three days but, nevertheless, the Anna Minch went down with all hands. The massive steamer split in two, and lies in the waters of Lake Michigan to this day, serving as a popular dive site. The two sections of the ship sit close together, one and a half miles south of Pentwater, Michigan in about 35 to 45 feet of water.
7. L.R. DOTY
The L.R. Doty, a 291-foot steamer, first set sail around the Great Lakes in 1893. She was one of the last wooden steamships to see service on the Great Lakes, as steel had become the industry standard for new vessels. The vessel had a steel-reinforced hull, which was rated A1*, the highest possible grade for a Lake vessel, by insurance association the Inland Lloyds. In addition, she had a massive and powerful engine, but she did not have electricity or modern communication technology. In spite of its sturdiness, the L.R. Doty was no match for the ferocious storm of October 25, 1898. Ships all over the lake were smashed, the Chicago boardwalk was destroyed, and the Milwaukee breakwall was broken. The Doty broke up, taking down its entire crew and cargo. The ship remained the largest wooden shipwreck unaccounted for in Lake Michigan until it was finally discovered in 2010, 112 years after sinking.
The Niagara was built in 1846 in Buffalo, New York for service on the Great Lakes transporting both passengers and goods. The massive side-wheeled steamboat was considered one of the finest steamers of its era. On September 24, 1856, at around 6:00 p.m., the steamship caught fire in the area of the engine room. The exact cause of the fire is uncertain, but the prevailing theory is that some flammable cargo down in the hold was the cause. Many passengers and crew were able to jump overboard and were later rescued by nearby ships; however, out of the 300 passengers on board, 60 perished and the entire cargo was lost to the Lake. A testament to the treacherous nature of Lake Michigan, the Niagara sank only a mile from shore, as the Captain made a desperate run for dry land. The wreck is another popular dive site, with the bulk of the wreck lying in 55 feet of water near Belgium, Wisconsin, but it can be dangerous; two divers almost died a couple years ago exploring it.