The incredible shipwrecks of Lake Michigan

by Shirley Williams
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When you think of shipwrecks you likely think of long journeys across vast oceans. Tough conditions with rough waves, possible icebergs, and maybe even the occasional pirate. Yet in the Great Lakes of the United States, there are around 6,000 shipwrecks still underwater. In Lake Michigan alone the number is around 1,500.

While 1,500 shipwrecks sound like far too many for one lake, it makes a little more sense when you understand just how large the lake is. The largest lake in the world is Lake Superior measuring in at 82,000 km squared. Technically the Caspian Sea is the world’s largest lake as it is a completely landlocked body of water surrounded by Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Iran, and Azerbaijan. It measures 371,000 km squared and so is bigger than Germany by area.

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Lake Michigan is in the top six largest lakes in the world and measures at 58,000 km squared. This means that it is larger than Croatia. When you consider that these lakes are larger than many countries it starts to make sense that a number of ships were wrecked there. 

While you would not expect choppy conditions in a lake, the body of water was so large that if there were storms, ships could get wrecked quite easily. Lake Michigan was used a lot during the late 19th and early 20th century as a shipping route for timber. There is one particular spot in the lower peninsula that has a large cluster of shipwrecks as sailors believed it was a sheltered route thanks to a cluster of islands, the Manitou Islands, during storms. 

Recently the US Coast Guard went on a patrol of the area and photographed a number of the shipwrecks. While some can be seen year-round the Coast Guard said it was the perfect condition to see all the shipwrecks. This is because every year Lake Michigan freezes over in many places. When spring comes the ice melts leaving cold clean water behind. As the warmer weather comes in it creates algae which make the water cloudier. This means that for a limited time there is a rare opportunity to see some fascinating wrecks in Lake Michigan.

In some places, the water is not even that deep so the shipwrecks are quite close to the surface of the water. The Coast Guard took photos of five large shipwrecks. One of the wrecks was a 121-foot boat called the James McBride. It was buried with a shipment of wood during a particularly violent storm. The wreckage is about ten feet underwater so it could be easily reached by swimmers if they went far enough out in the lake. The ship sank in 1857 so it would be one amazing wreckage to swim around. 

Another shipwreck that was pictured was the 133-foot boat called The Rising Sun. It was a passenger boat that crashed during a snowstorm in 1917. Records state that the ship was mainly taking farmers south to sell their goods. The boat is buried about eight feet underwater so the passengers were able to easily make it to land and safety. In fact, when the rescue boat returned hours later there was still one man asleep in his room. The ship had sunk without him even realizing, now that is a deep sleeper. He was lucky that the ship sunk in only eight feet of water or he would have been a very different kind of ‘deep’ sleeper.

While you may be tempted to swim in the waters and explore the wreckages we would recommend waiting for warmer weather. During the spring the temperature can still be around -1 degrees celsius so it would not be a pleasant swim.

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