Romancing the Shipwreck Coast

By Randall Hyman
9/17/2018 • American History Magazine

It was an eerie moment. After driving for hours along Lake Superior’s eastern shore, watching storm clouds gather on the horizon, I finally stood before the crown jewels of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum. The relic I had come to view greets all visitors as they enter the museum’s black-walled sanctum before diving into the underwater world of shipwreck lore. It is a bronze ship’s bell bearing the name Edmund Fitzgerald, and in its polished face I saw tragedy.

Shipwreck artifacts and boat models sat like scattered sunken treasures in a single, cavernous room illuminated by shafts of spotlights. With strains of Gordon Lightfoot’s ballad “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” thrumming softly in the background, hushed visitors shuffled reverently past, paying homage to the ship from which the bell was retrieved 17 miles away and 535 feet deep.

“It is the deepest, coldest, largest graveyard in the world,” murmured a middle-aged man from Pennsylvania, one of 6,000 visitors who come here each season from May through October. Flooding an ancient rift basin some 1,300 feet deep and 350 miles wide, Lake Superior is the world’s largest freshwater lake in surface area and third largest in volume. It contains nearly 3,000 cubic miles of fresh water, 10 percent of the world’s unfrozen supply, averaging 40 degrees Fahrenheit year-round. Its shores could encompass all the other Great Lakes combined, with an extra three Lake Eries thrown in for good measure.

The museum sits at the tip of the lake’s most treacherous strand at Whitefish Point, easternmost extent of the legendary Shipwreck Coast of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Many of the 350 ships lost to Superior’s embrace over the past two centuries lie near this point of sandy land that forms a natural barrier between the gales of the open lake and the refuge of Whitefish Bay upstream from the locks of Sault Ste. Marie.

In November 1975, in one of the most violent Lake Superior storms on record, the 729-foot ore freighter Edmund Fitzgerald suddenly disappeared from radar screens as it beat southeast toward Whitefish Bay. With waves topping 30 feet and northwest winds gusting to 100 miles per hour, Captain Ernest McSorley had earlier reported it to be “the worst sea I have ever been in.”

Fitz was the Titanic of the Great Lakes, among the largest of its time and a repeat record holder for tonnage shipped. Though it had been listing badly for hours, carrying 26,000 tons of iron ore, no one dreamed this veteran behemoth could ever go down.

Whether it broke in two, capsized or nose-dived in the maelstrom will never be known. No one would ever tell the tale, as all 29 men aboard were lost; not a single body was ever recovered. Instead of a distress call, the captain’s last words—minutes before vanishing—were, “We are holding our own.”

The Shipwreck Museum harbors the stuff legends are made of—a ship’s oaken frame here, 19th-century tableware there, a few wooden spokes from a pilothouse wheel in another corner. Like Stations of the Cross, 12 chronological shipwreck exhibits line the walls; they start with the first commercial ship lost on Lake Superior nearly 200 years ago and end with the last major one to date, Edmund Fitzgerald. Both the first and last boats perished in similar storms.

In November 1816, a sudden northwest gale overtook a two-masted merchant schooner called Invincible on its way to help quash a rebellion at the Northwest Company’s Fort William trading post in present-day Thunder Bay. It struggled valiantly for hours, then retreated for Whitefish Bay and eventually foundered two miles south of Whitefish Point. Invincible it was not, but all its crew miraculously struggled safely ashore not far from the present site of the museum. Thus began a long, sorrowful history of commercial shipwrecks on Lake Superior.

Since acquiring a license from the Coast Guard in 1983 to build and operate a museum at Whitefish Point, the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society has sponsored numerous shipwreck dives in the vicinity as well as renovating and constructing several buildings. In 1995, on its most famous dive, teaming up with the Canadian navy and the National Geographic Society, the museum recovered Edmund Fitzgerald’s bell and left an identical one in its place atop the sunken pilothouse, bearing all 29 names of the lost crew.

In the main museum building, seagulls are depicted still hovering over the retrieved bell, frozen in flight by suspension wires. An enormous Second-Order Fresnel lens sparkles behind it with 344 separate precision-ground leaded crystal prisms that magnify the lighthouse beams, while a simulated trio of scuba divers descends on the skeletal remains of a wooden hull in a far corner.

Outside, the unusual 80-foot-tall Whitefish Point Lighthouse reminds visitors that this was once a working Coast Guard station with a full-time lightkeeper and surfboat crew. When President Abraham Lincoln ordered urgent construction of a lighthouse here, engineers responded with the quick and sturdy design of an octagonal observation deck perched atop a steel tube able to with stand the fiercest winds.

The 1861 Lightkeeper’s Quarters still connect to this tower via a quaint skyway that kept men warm and dry for more than a century until the Coast Guard converted the lighthouse to an unmanned station in 1970. Period-furnished rooms recapture the lonely, self-sufficient lifestyle of lighthouse families who went months at a time without outside contact yet were on 24-hour call to perform rescues and keep the beacon running no matter the ice and storm.

In the adjacent 1923 Surfboat House, a 26-foot rescue boat underscores the skill and bravery required of the trained lifesaving crews that lived in the nearby Crews Quarters, now a modern five-bedroom inn run by the historical society. From 1871 to 1914, roughly from the formation of the U.S. Lifesaving Service to the beginning of World War I, Great Lakes lifesavers came to the aid of more than 10,000 vessels, saving 55,639 potential victims. These numbers are impressive, particularly when seeing the replica of the lightweight, open surfboat that lifesavers deployed in the very gales that other boats fled.

Boats like these cost some $250 in the 1920s. The new replica on display in the Surfboat House totaled $100,000 in labor, design and materials. As much as any exhibit piece, this newest addition is a measure of the kind of dedication and funding that keeps the museum afloat.

After several hours touring the complex, I began to see the museum as a memorial as much as an institution. Beyond the buildings and lighthouse, I followed a wooden boardwalk to the beach where children played in the sand and gentle waves. It was a vision of summer leisure, but there was something oddly unsettling.

Miles offshore, I saw 1,000-foot ore freighters drifting majestically by like silent caretakers of what lay hundreds of feet below their keels. I knew Fitz and countless others were out there, entombed somewhere in the black, icy grip of Lake Superior, the deepest, coldest, largest graveyard in the country. The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead, but their memory lives on at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, a memorial to the awesome saga of life, death and heroism on our inland seas.

 

Originally published in the February 2007 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.

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