MARQUETTE - Nothing inspires a good ghost story or a legend like a graveyard.
Lying at the bottom of Lake Superior are hundreds of enticing mysteries, shipwrecks buried in one of the many graveyards of the Great Lakes. But one 200-mile stretch of water between Grand Marais and Whitefish Point has earned the name the "Shipwreck Coast."
More ships have perished on Shipwreck Coast than in any other location on Lake Superior. Nearly 100 ships have met their demise on this shoreline, taking numerous people with them. The most well-known sinking is the Edmund Fitzgerald ore carrier, which sank to the bottom of Lake Superior about 17 miles north-northwest of Whitefish Point on Nov. 10, 1975.
This file photo by Bob Campbell shows the Edmund Fitzgerald in the St. Marys River in May 1975. (Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society photo)
On Nov. 14, a U.S. Navy plane with a magnetic anomaly detector was able to detect a magnetic pull 17 miles from Whitefish Point. In the days proceeding, a side-scan sonar was used to locate two large pieces of a ship. In May of 1976, The U.S. Navy's CURV III controlled underwater recovery vehicle was used to take pictures of the ship and on May 20, the words, "Edmund Fitzgerald" were seen, upside down on the ship's stern, 535 feet below the surface.
After the ship was discovered, family members of the 29 crew members lost on the Fitzgerald voiced their concerns of leaving the ship undisturbed, out of respect for the dead. The family members did, however, suggest recovering one artifact from the ship, to serve as a symbol of remembrance of those who had perished. The Fitzgerald Bell was chosen and after numerous dives, was recovered July 4, 1995. It is now on display at The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum in Whitefish Point.
Many theories have been formulated over the years as to why the Fitzgerald, and many ships like it, have sunk along that coast.
"When you have a stretch of 200 miles of water with prevailing northwest winds, it builds terrific seas that cause these shipwrecks on dangerous waters," said Fred Stonehouse, a local maritime historian. Stonehouse said the greatest number of shipwrecks were between the 1880s and 1900, a period that saw a high volume of shipping.
"Although there was less shipping on this lake (Lake Superior), it was far more deadly," Stonehouse said.
Aside from severe weather patterns, another cause of ships sinking was collisions. As shipping lanes grew more crowded, any cause of reduced visibility could, and often would, result in ships colliding. Still another possible cause was brittle steel. When large steel plates were manufactured for ships, the quality control capability during this period wasn't sufficient.
"When subjected to the right conditions, they would literally crack, causing the ship to break into pieces and sink. One theory is that the Titanic had brittle steel and cracked when it came in contact with the iceberg," Stonehouse said, adding, The Shipwreck Coast "is the most desolate coast you will ever see. It makes you wonder how many bodies are buried on that beach."
Scuba enthusiasts are attracted to ships that have been discovered and are dive-able, including the Comet, the John B. Cowle, the steamer Vienna and the Cyprus.
The Cyprus, a new steel freighter bound with ore to Minnesota in 1907, broke up and sank. Only one crew member survived the wreck. The ship was recovered by the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society in 2007.
But an even greater lure is the undiscovered shipwrecks.
Among the ones that haven't been located is the S.S. Henry B. Smith. The Smith was set to leave port during the Great Storm of 1913, which blew from Nov. 8 through Nov. 13 and caused 20 ships to sink on the Great Lakes. Capt. James Owen, who was pressured by the owners of the ship to make his deliveries, left the dock before his crew had a chance to secure the hatches.
"The whole town is watching Smith pull out. ... Finally the storm became too heavy to see the ship and that was the last it was ever seen," said Sean Ley, development officer for The Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society.
"Every diver wants to find the Smith wreck ... people would just go crazy if is was found" Ley said.
Today, The Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society works to highlight local shipwrecks. One program the group initiated was the Underwater Documentation Project. In 2008, the society received a grant from the Michigan Department of Transportation to document five wrecks. The funds paid for 80 percent of the cost to record the ships with still imagery and video.
"With so many wrecks in Michigan waters, it's not going to be up to us to document all of them, but at least we did this project as a model to show how it could be done," Ley said.
Abbey Hauswirth can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 240. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org