High-water Great Lakes uncover pieces of history: shipwrecks

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

Fragments of long-lost ships are being flung ashore on Michigan beaches. Skeletons of foundered vessels are showing themselves, then vanishing again.

With water levels at or approaching record highs on the Great Lakes, history has been visible in unexpected volume on Michigan shorelines. It's been months of unburied treasure for the people who study and explore the unfortunate legends that never reached their final port.

The remnants of a Lake Michigan shipwreck – possibly the schooner Contest, lost in 1882 – were exposed by high water and harsh winds near Whitehall in December.

The Lake Huron coast has been particularly active, with timbers sighted from Oscoda to north of Rogers City. At Hoeft State Park in Presque Isle County, a 45-foot stretch of unidentified ribs and keel lies magnified in shallow water where there used to be bone-dry dunes.

"A wild summer for sure," says state maritime archaeologist Wayne Lusardi, a Michigan DNR staffer who works out of the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center in Alpena. "Over the course of the last six months, I've probably had 50-plus reports of various pieces of wreckage."

In December, across the state on Lake Michigan, erosion exposed a ship in Whitehall that had been swathed in a sand dune for so long most people forgot it was there.

State Maritime Archaeologist Wayne Lusardi snorkels through the wreckage of the Portsmouth, which sits in seven or eight feet of water on the shore of Middle Island in Lake Huron.

"Totally uncovered," says John Hanson, president of the West Michigan Underwater Preserve. "Keel, centerboard and ribs."

But the waves giveth, and the wind taketh away: within two weeks, it was invisible again.

Research showed the ship had emerged from the dunes in 1942, then again in '74. The Michigan Shipwreck Research Association took a look this time and decided it's the Contest, a schooner that went down in 1882.

Hanson isn't quite so ready to affix a name; he says it might also be the schooners North Yuba or Little Belle, lost in 1855 and 1879, or the two-masted brig Alexander Mitchell, gone since 1866. They're among more than 6,000 ships claimed by the Great Lakes.

Shipwreck hunter John Hanson of Whitehall.

"Especially back in the day," he says, "they would run into trouble, start taking on water, and hit bottom or sandbars in maybe 30 feet of water. Then the waves would just beat them apart."

Lake winds dig quick graves near the shore, Lusardi says, and often, there wasn't much to bury.

"That's free lumber. Free nails. Things you have to purchase, right there in your yard," he says.

If that sounds ghoulish, consider the century and the circumstances. "If a Home Depot truck crashed in your front yard and it was left there," Lusardi points out, "you'd probably take the lumber off. It's fair game."

Relative scarcity is one of the reasons the recent artifacts are so welcome, even if their origins can be impossible to pin down. A timber might come from a known, nearby wreck, or currents might have carried it 40 or 50 miles.

Ice coated the remains of a 19th-century Lake Michigan schooner exposed by high water and high winds near Whitehall in December. The ship, possibly the Contest, had previously shown itself in 1942 and 1974.

The lakes are particularly volatile as they reach levels not approached since 1986. Erie was at an August record 574.21 feet, according to preliminary data from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; the previous high was 573.95.

Superior was at 603.21 feet, Ontario 247.81 and Michigan-Huron 581.77, all within three inches of the most ever.

What caused them to rise is also what has made them so capricious — or, if you’re a historian, so generous.

The same conditions that have presented or exposed artifacts have also had the opposite effect.

A huge starboard section of the Joseph S. Fay, resting in peace since 1905 on the sand north of Rogers City, is underwater for the first time since the good ship hit the rocks at 40 Mile Point and splintered in a Lake Huron gale.

State Maritime Archaeologist Wayne Lusardi measured this timber at 16 feet from the exposed tip to the point where it entered the water. Waves carried it several weeks ago from its former resting place onto the rocks placed at Bayview Park in Alpena to help prevent erosion.

As logic suggests, snowmelt and runoff, heavy rain and only modest evaporation have created the high levels, says Hans Van Sumeren, director of the Great Lakes Water Studies Institute at Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City.

What’s different besides the amount of melting snow, he says, is the origin — not lake effect, which is pulled from the lakes and is more or less a wash in terms of buildup, but storm systems from the West Coast.

"Those strong storms erode shorelines," he says. "Then the energy that's also dumping the rain can erode the lake bed or the near shore."

There's little rhyme or reason to what gets pummeled or preserved.

The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point in the U.P. has fought in previous years to save its deck, says executive director Bruce Lynn. "Then suddenly this spring, we have another 40 yards of beach in front of it."

What seemed like high waters in the summer of 2018 -- before the record levels a year later -- turned up a piece of the ribs of a 19th-century sailing vessel in Traverse Bay. State Maritime Archaeologist Wayne Lusardi can tell that it came from near the bow, low on the hull near the bilge.

Five miles south, however, at his family's cottage, a gentle dune that used to taper to the beach has become "a mini-cliff."

Along Lake Superior, "the appearing and disappearing act isn't that unusual," he says. What stood out was a visit two months ago from a man who'd found a large chunk of steel on a beach.

"He wasn't sure what it was," Lynn says, and upon examination, "neither were we."

Even when something turns out to be nothing much, Lusardi says, he'd still like to see it, though ideally he'd prefer it not be moved.

"My preference is that people take pictures, record the measurements and send GPS coordinates," he says, the better to evaluate them in context.

Artifacts belong to the state, which owns the Michigan half of the lake bottoms.

Whatever shape they take, Lusardi says, the clues they give are "all about people" who made them.

Examining a 150-year-old white oak beam, he says, is like studying a leaf instead of a forest. How was it cut? Why did the builder use an unusual nail pattern?

"How people built ships. How people used ships. There's a lot to learn."

A few weeks ago, Alpena hunkered down before a rainstorm so powerful that it relocated some of the ponderous slabs of rock placed on the beach to fight erosion.

Afterward, bicyclists in Bayview Park noticed a long piece of timber on the rocks and dialed his office.

With waters unusually high in Lake Huron, pieces of old shipwrecks have been washing ashore at Bayview Park in Alpena.

Lusardi measured it at 16 feet from its tip to the waterline that concealed the other end. He noted the square spikes that once connected it to the adjoining beam, and the limber passage, a U-shaped cutout at the base that allowed water to flow between frames so that it didn't pool in the bottom of the ship.

It looked sturdy, but an artifact that's spent generations beneath the surface is actually doomed if it becomes someone's illegal souvenir.

Under a microscope, Lusardi says, a piece of fresh wood resembles a sponge, with its cells full of fluids, saps and sugars. Lake water had preserved the beam, but allowed to dry on land, it would crack, flake, and ultimately turn to historic mulch.

University of Michigan anthropology students help Wayne Lusardi study the wreckage of the Joseph S. Fay north of Rogers City. The students were working in 2006, more than a century after one-half of one side of the 216-foot ship was deposited on shore. High waters in Lake Huron now cover the remnants of the freighter for the first time.

There's a preservation process involving a waxy mix of chemicals, but the beam would have needed gallons of it, along with two years of his time.

Lusardi left it on the rocks. When he checked a few days later, it was gone.

"The lake took it back," he says — maybe forever, or maybe just until the next storm.

Time will tell, and the lakes are in no hurry.


Twitter: @nealrubin_dn