A diver explores the Wells Burt, one of the most famous shipwrecks off the coast of Chicago.
In the late 1800s, Chicago transformed into one of the busiest shipping ports in the world—it was the destination of more than 2000 lumber-carrying boats per year. Because of the uniquely volatile weather of the Great Lakes, its popularity also increased the number of shipwrecks. Altogether, more than 6000 boats and 30,000 mariners have perished along the Third Coast. Keith Pearson, the main captain at Double Action Dive Charters, estimates 300 of those shipwrecks sit off the coast of Chicago alone—and so far, only about 50 have been found.
“Much of [the city’s] history is underwater,” Dean Nolan, president of the Underwater Archaeological Society of Chicago, a group that works to preserve the region’s shipwreck history, told mental_floss.
It’s an oft-forgotten part of Chicago’s past, but for an important span of decades, the lakes were used as a superhighway funneling traffic to the city—from lumber used to rebuild after the Great Chicago fire to immigrants fleeing hardship.
“We’ve forgotten that part of our past here in Chicago,” Jim Gentile, owner of Windy City Diving, tells mental_floss. “But the city wouldn’t exist without maritime history. We’re known as a railroad hub, but the first railroad engine actually came here on a boat.”
Luckily, it’s possible to get out and see that history firsthand off Chicago’s coastline. More than a dozen shipwrecks are active dive sites in Lake Michigan, preserved by icy cold freshwater, relatively small amounts of marine growth, and little human traffic.
“A Great Lakes shipwreck diver is in a class by himself,” Pearson tells mental_floss. “Out of the diving community as a whole, there are very few.” That may be in part because of the challenges: Winter weather and storms make the dive season in Chicago relatively short. The harbors are open from late April to October. Most divers go out in the mid-summer when it’s warm, but Gentile suggests diving earlier in the season—visibility shrinks throughout the year because plankton begins to flourish.
So grab a dive-suit and head out to the lake—here are some of the best shipwrecks near Chicago.
1. THE EARLIEST: THE WINGS OF THE WIND
Although older shipwrecks pepper Lake Michigan waiting to be discovered, Wings of the Wind is so far the oldest one located. It went down in 1866 after a harrowing early morning collision with a larger boat, the H.P. Baldwin. Suffering little damage, the Baldwin continued on its course. Meanwhile, Wings of the Wind quickly flooded and began to sink. The crew was able to escape onto a yawl boat, rowed a few yards away, and began to shout for help. The Baldwin, still nearby, returned and rescued the crew. The wreck now sits about a mile northeast of North Avenue Beach.
Much of the wreck was pilfered when divers rediscovered the site in 1987, but the ship still provides an excellent experience. Divers can see much of it intact and, at the same time, get a unique look at marine architecture of the mid-1800s.
2. THE MOST FAMOUS: THE WELLS BURT
Three miles off Evanston, just north of Chicago, the Wells Burt rests in 40 feet of water. The ship floundered in a violent storm in 1883, one where wave spray was recorded 100 feet high on the nearby shoreline. Once its steering gears failed and the mizzenmast ripped loose, it sank with all 11 crew. The boat’s owner sent a team of divers out to recover what could be salvaged, but its hull remains on the lake floor, undisturbed for over a century.
The wreck, still completely intact, was rediscovered by a group of divers in the late 1980s. Pearson was part of that team. He says the Wells Burt changed the way divers treat shipwrecks: Now they’re looked at “not as a pile of junk to be picked through, but complete evidence of a true story that was waiting in the pages of history to surface."
3. THE MOST POPULAR: THE STRAITS OF MACKINAC
This may not be a natural wreck, but the Straits of Mackinac is one of Chicago’s premier dive sites. During high season, it has divers nearly every weekend. It sits just northeast of Navy Pier in 82 feet of water. Its life began as a car ferry that transported people from the Upper Peninsula to lower Michigan before the Mackinac Bridge was built. Gentile bought the ship at auction for $1, saving it from a future life as scrap metal. Now, it serves as an intact dive site about 80 feet down where you can even venture inside the ship. It's also a good fishing spot—salmon congregate there for shelter.
“Chicago is relatively shallow compared to the rest of the lake,” Gentile says. “The shipwrecks down here tend to get flattened by the effect of the waves. The artificial shipwrecks were sunk to give divers something more to explore, and it works well for fishermen too.”
4. THE MOST MYSTERIOUS: THE THOMAS HUME
In 1891, the Thomas Hume disappeared without a trace from Lake Michigan. It had been heading to Muskegon from Chicago after dropping off lumber when a storm hit. The Rouse Simmons, the ship it was sailing with, returned to Chicago safely. The Hume chose to continue, and was never heard from again. After the storm, no wreckage was found. The crew vanished along with the boat. The owners offered a reward for anyone who could find the ship, but it was never collected. Rumors began to surface about the lost boat; some claimed the crew mutinied against the owners and repainted the boat as their own, or that it had disappeared into the Bermuda Triangle’s Midwest cousin, the Michigan Triangle.
Recovery diver Taras Lyssenko solved the mystery in 2006 when he discovered a nearly perfect ship 22 miles offshore and about 150 feet down. Once located, the Thomas Hume was a perfect time capsule of maritime life in the late 1800s. “It’s the best wreck in the Chicagoland area because it supplies a lot of those artifacts and bits of history,” Gentile says. “There were tools, plates, and even shoes.”
All photos courtesy of Windy City Diving