The Dossin Great Lakes Museum held a Lost Mariners Remembrance for sailors who have perished on the Great Lakes. The 29 lanterns represent the 29 sailors lost on the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald. (Donna Terek / The Detroit News)
Detroit is famous for automobiles, music and urban decay, but our region also is defined by a volatile, mysterious force: The Great Lakes.
The Great Lakes are epic. Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie and Superior form the largest group of freshwater lakes on the planet. They contain roughly 22 percent of the world's fresh surface water -- enough to cover the 48 contiguous U.S. states to a uniform depth of 9.5 feet.
"We wouldn't have been able to achieve our greatness without them. They link us to the world," said Joel Stone, curator of the Detroit Historical Society. "The benefits they bring us are too many to mention, but we shouldn't forget that it has come with an enormous human toll. Thousands of people have died in the Great Lakes. We really have no idea how many."
That's why the Dossin Great Lakes Museum, a maritime heritage center on the shore of Belle Isle, holds an annual tribute to those who have been lost on the Great Lakes.
Patrick McLeod of Ann Arbor is a descendant of two of the dead. One hundred years ago the bodies of his great-grandfather and great uncle were found frozen in Lake Erie. They perished on the Marquette & Bessemer No. 2, which cast off from Conneaut, Ohio, loaded with 30 rail cars of coal and bound for Port Stanley, Ohio. A storm hit, temperatures plummeted from 40 degrees to 10 degrees and the entire crew perished.
Historians say they still don't have many clues about how far the Marquette & Bessemer No. 2 traveled, nor where the 355-foot shipwreck may be in Lake Erie, which is the smallest and shallowest of the Great Lakes.
"I would love to know what went wrong, what happened," says McLeod. "But to be honest, I would settle for people remembering the tragedy."
Janet Burke of Grosse Pointe Park also knows one of the Great Lakes dead. Burke grew up with Thomas Bentsen in St. Joseph. She remembers him as a restless kid who desperately wanted to get out of their small town.
Thirty-four years ago, she got a call from her sister saying Bentsen was among the 29 crew members who died on the Edmund Fitzgerald, which plunged 530 feet to the bottom of Lake Superior during a raging storm on Nov. 10, 1975, 17 miles north-northwest of Whitefish Point. Bentsen was only 23 years old when the great ship went down. Burke still goes to the Mariner's Church of Detroit for the annual Great Lakes Memorial to remember Bentsen. And there's the famous ballad "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" by Gordon Lightfoot. Burke admits she can still well up tears when she hears it.
"After all these years, it still seems almost like a mystery to me," she says. "We hardly ever think about the Lakes as something that can be deadly, but, of course, it's all too true."