Shipwrecks of the Great Lakes
History of the Great Lakes
The Great Lakes in the United States are the largest freshwater system in the world and can be seen from outer space. However, there have been hundreds of shipwrecks over the past 200 years. The lakes include; Lake Ontario (the French Lac de Frontenac), Erie, Huron, Michigan and Superior. In addition, there is the St. Lawrence Seaway, which connects the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean and opened in 1959.
The seaway was first explored in the 1500s. The border between Canada and the United States runs through the middle of the Great Lakes except for Lake Michigan and much of the St. Lawrence Seaway. The border was established during the Revolutionary war, although there were still border disputes, which continued for some years after the war. The War of 1812 was the last conflict on the lakes.
Map of the Great Lakes
Facts about the Great Lakes
The Great Lakes contain approximately 21% of the world’s surface fresh water and is a 2300 marine highway from the St. Lawrence Seaway to the Lakes. Many major cities were founded on the lakes for purposes of shipping, such as Chicago, Cleveland, Buffalo, Green Bay, Toronto and Duluth, which is the Great Lakes “bulk cargo capital”. Lake Erie is the shallowest lake, which makes storms more dangerous for ships, and Lake Superior is the largest lake. There are 35,000 islands throughout the lakes with the largest being Manitoulin Island in Lake Huron which is the largest island in an inland body of freshwater in the world. There are also numerous rivers and canals running off the Great Lakes.
The early history of shipping was very dangerous as there have been hundreds of ships lost in storms. Storms arise very quickly in the lakes and one reason is because they are affected by three prominent air systems:
- Winter brings the very dry and cold arctic system from the North
- Another dry system is warm and comes from the Pacific West
- A wet, tropical system comes from the south, the Gulf of Mexico
Mysteries of the Great Lakes
First Known Shipwreck
French explorer, La Salle, built the first known ship to navigate the Great Lakes in 1679, which was called the ‘Griffon.’ Not many details are known about the trip, but it is thought that the ship was launched into the Niagara River and headed along the coast of Lake Erie traveling all the way to Green Bay where La Salle loaded her with furs that were purchased from the Indians. The Griffon was never heard of again, so it is assumed it sunk in a gale with the entire crew.
Another Ship Lost at Sea
First Steamer - Also Shipwrecked
History records the first steamer to be built was “Walk-in-the-Water.” in Buffalo in 1818. It is known, however, that two steamers were built in 1616 on Lake Ontario, Their operations were confined to Lake Ontario, so they were not considered Great Lakes steamers. " Walk– In–the–Water” was also driven ashore during a gale on Lake Erie in 1821. Although shipping continued from that time until now, there were many ships that lie on the bottom of one of the lakes.
SS Edmund Fitzgerald
Certainly the SS Edmund Fitzgerald is one of the best-known catastrophes on the Great Lakes. The SS Edmund Fitzgerald was a Great Lakes freighter, which sank in Lake Superior in a storm on November 10,1975, with the loss of the entire crew. When she was launched in 1958 she was the largest boat on the Great Lakes and remains to this day the largest boat that has sunk.
For 17 years she had carried taconite, which is the variety of iron formation consisting of 15% iron and sedimentary rock and the iron minerals are inter-layered with Quartz, chert or carbonate from mines near Duluth, Minnesota. This ship was considered a workhorse, setting seasonal haul records six times.
Boat watchers loved the Fitzgerald due to her size, her record-breaking performance and her DJ Captain, as he piped music through the intercom all over the ship day and night. The day she went down she was fully loaded and was caught in a massive winter storm with near hurricane force winds and waves up to 35 feet high. No bodies were recovered from her crew of 29.
At the request of the families the bronze bell was recovered by the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society. It is not really known exactly why she went down but her sinking changed the regulations for Great Lakes shipping. The new regulations included mandatory survival suits, depth finders, positioning systems, increased freeboard, and more frequent inspections of the vessels
Lost Ships V: The November Witch
Lord, as I stand on the rolling deck
To view the restless sea
With its wide expanse of darkened sky,
You seem so far from me.
Intrepid youth should feel no fear,
But I have a load of care
For the safety of our ship and men.
Lord, hear my earnest prayer:
That I be true to every task;
May no fault lie with me.
Whatever danger may arise,
As we sail the raging sea.
May I be calm and know that You
Can still the wind and wave,
And be assured in perfect trust
That You have the power to save.
When the moon sheds beams from a starlit sky,
I feel near to You again,
For the same moon shines on my loved ones, too,
And I thank You, Lord......Amen.
Written by Mark Bradley’s father who was concerned about safety for his son
The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald -Gordon Lightfoot
Huntington Beach, Ohio on Lake Erie
Shipping cargo on the Great Lakes has suffered along with most businesses in our current economy with 2009, being the lowest volume for iron ore in 71 years and the worst year for coal in 77 years also. Limestone was down to its lowest level since 1938. If manufacturing doesn't improve, neither will the demand for these minerals.
Sailing the Great Lakes is still a dangerous job, although certainly the many improvements due to new regulations and stronger vessels have improved the situation. Better communication is also a help. There are more than 2000 vessels sailing the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence and this does not take into account recreational boaters. The one thing you cannot control is the storms.
However, the lakes are beautiful and people also use the beaches in the summertime. I grew up in Lakewood, Ohio, and I got my worst sunburn ever on the shore of Lake Erie at Huntington Beach when I was a teen. I recently visited the area and it is still beautiful.
© 2011 Pamela Oglesby