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Searching for Sunken History on the Great Lakes
By Tom Adkinson

WHITEFISH POINT, Mich. – On a blue-sky day, Lake Superior is a beautiful body of water as you stroll along its sandy shore that is decorated with colorful pebbles and aging pieces of driftwood.

Any sense of serenity is negated, however, when you remember that your beach access was at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum and that under those eye-appealing waters are the wrecks of hundreds of ships and the remains of many sailors.

great lakes
Lake Superior looks placid on a blue-sky day, but it can turn ugly and deadly very quickly, especially in autumn - Image by Tom Adkinson.

Somberness settles in when you enter the museum and see its first artifact – the bell of the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald, the ship memorialized in Canadian singer/songwriter Gordon Lightfoot’s haunting “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”

great lakes shipwreck museum
The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum is a major attraction on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula - Image by Tom Adkinson.

The 729-foot-long Fitzgerald sank in a raging storm on the night of Nov. 10, 1975, just 17 miles from Whitefish Point. The bell was recovered in 1995 from 535 feet below the lake’s surface and was replaced with a replica bell inscribed with the names of the 29 crewmen who perished on their unfinished transit from Superior, Wisc., to Detroit with a load of processed iron ore. When launched, it was the largest ship on the Great Lakes.

The museum, part of a nine-building complex owned by the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society, tells the story of the Fitzgerald and 12 other shipwrecks. Those 13 are just a tiny portion of the 6,000 shipwrecks on the Great Lakes since Europeans began venturing on these waters 400 years ago. The human toll has been 30,000, according to the historical society.

edmund fitzgerald bell
The bell of the ill-fated Edmund Fitzgerald is the first artifact you see inside the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum - Image by Tom Adkinson.
  tahquamenon falls brewery
Owner Lark Ludlow pulls a beer for a customer at the Tahquamenon Falls Brewery and Pub - Image by Tom Adkinson.

Just the 80 miles of Lake Superior from Whitefish Point to Pictured Rocks have been the site of 300 recorded accidents that claimed the lives of more than 320 sailors.
Raging northwest winds, open water, poor visibility and converging shipping lanes have given the immediate area two names – Graveyard of the Great Lakes and Lake Superior’s Shipwreck Coast.

The earliest sinking chronicled at the museum is that of the Invincible, a two-masted schooner belonging to the British North West Company in 1816. Like the Fitzgerald, the Invincible encountered a November storm, and it became the first shipwreck of a European-style vessel on the Shipwreck Coast, according to the historical society.

The historical society’s work goes well beyond the telling of stories and includes hunting for wrecks with its 47-foot research vessel equipped with side-scan sonar and a remotely operated submersible.

The most recent find was in 2014 when a three-masted schooner barge, the Nelson, was located. It sank in 1899.

great lakes shipwreck museum
Park interpreter Theresa Neal leads visitors to Michigan’s largest waterfall, Tahquamenon Falls - Image by Tom Adkinson.

There is a continuing quest for two French minesweepers built in Thunder Bay, Ontario, in 1918. They never made it out of the Great Lakes to participate in World War I.

Whitefish Point is 75 miles north of the famous Mackinac Bridge on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (30 percent of the state’s land and 3 percent of its population), and the shipwreck museum is one of its few manmade attractions.

A major natural attraction nearby is Tahquamenon (rhymes with “phenomenon”) Falls, the largest waterfall in Michigan. The falls on the tannin-stained Tahquamenon River are 60 feet high and 200 feet across.

A popular place for sustenance in this remote area is the Tahquamenon Falls Brewery and Pub. See owner Lark Ludlow for a microbrew and some of the whitefish that gives Whitefish Point its name.

Trip-planning resources:, and

Published June 15, 2018

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