New Michigan map, app help find Great Lakes shipwrecks
In the Straits of Mackinac, about five miles west of the bridge, the ship known as Sandusky sits 85 feet deep in Lake Michigan, tipped slightly to port, but upright.
It has rested there since September 1856. Hauling grain from Chicago to Buffalo, the Sandusky went down in a gale.
Ron Bloomfield first saw it on Labor Day weekend 2000, on his first dive to one of the many remarkably well preserved shipwrecks at the bottom of the Great Lakes.
“It looks like kind of a pirate ship, sitting there,” Bloomfield said. “It’s got the little figurehead underneath the bowsprit, which sticks up.
“The masts are lying down. They’re not up. But, that one, right there, kind of cemented my interest in shipwrecks.”
Visiting such shipwrecks in the Great Lakes is becoming almost as easy as looking at one’s phone.
Thanks to Bloomfield and other folks around the state, including many volunteers, the Michigan Shipwrecks Story Map and the Michigan Shipwrecks Public Web App offer easy access to intimate looks at wrecks.
The app, available at michigan.gov/exploreshipwrecks, offers the stories behind the ships and their fate. It includes their location and boating access sites for canoes and kayaks, on paddleboards, as well as amateur scuba divers.
The map also highlights underwater preserves and water trails maintained by the state.
“The Michigan Underwater Preserve Council for years had published a printed guide, and tried to duplicate it on their website,” said Sandra Clark, director of the Michigan History Center in the state Department of Natural Resources.
The problem was a limited number of people knew about it or had access, she said. The new website makes all of the information accessible to everybody, she said.
"And, there’s more effort to make divers and what I call arm-chair explorers know a bit more about the wrecks, with maps that tell you want wrecks you can see from paddle sports and a map that shows you whether they are for beginner, intermediate or advanced divers,” Clark said.
The shipwrecks are a record of shipbuilding, commerce and the development of the state, from its settlement to its growth as a mining and lumbering hub to its emergence as a great industrial power.
The tale unfolds as in a history museum, underwater.
Because of the amount of shipping over the centuries on the Great Lakes and the lack of salt in the water, what is preserved is considered the greatest collection of shipwrecks in the world, experts say. Salt water especially eats away at wood.
“It’s definitely representative of our state’s history, too, and our nation’s history,” said Wayne Lusardi, the state’s maritime archaeologist, who works with the history center, the department and others on the project.
“You have a lot of vessels in the Great Lakes that are directly related to the War of 1812 and to the whole development of this nation as the United States,” he said.
“You have the paddle boats that were part of the great westward migration that move the population from the east to the inland areas.
“In the 1870s, there was something like 3,000, close to 4,000 vessels registered on the lakes,” Lusardi said, with far less technology to help tame the weather and aids to navigation to make the fresh seaways safer.
With much larger ships today there are now several hundred ships on the water amid far less perilous conditions.
“There are a lot of resources out there that you can research to study wrecks on an individual basis,” Lusardi said. “This site and app give a comprehensive list of wrecks that are known in Michigan waters, and a lot of the basic information about them.
“You can look at a geographic area on the story map, and if you live right near Petoskey, or vacationing in the vicinity, you can easily see what’s located around there,” he said.
“Or, if you are interested in schooners from the 1870s, you can kind of search it through that way.
The Michigan Underwater Preserve Council, the Michigan Underwater Salvage and Preserve Council, the Michigan History Center and the Department of Natural Resources have all contributed over many years to increasing preservation efforts.
Many involved could be described as volunteer shipwreck fans, or officials who eventually got bitten by the bug.
“We don’t get compensation for sitting on either of the councils,” said Bloomfield, who sits on the preserve council and teaches some maritime history at Central Michigan University. “We do it because it’s something we want to do.
“The make-up of the committee over the years: We’ve had divers, people in the diving industry, people from the legal field, people from conservation interests.”
It is largely volunteers who organize the underwater displays, marking them with buoys.
“When I first started, back in the early 2000s, it was kind of dysfunctional. There wasn’t a lot of interplay. There was a lot of skepticism,” Bloomfield said.
“Right now, what it is, is a lot of the key players want to work together.
A lot of the wrecks are more easily accessible than many people assume, said Lusardi, a state employee stationed at the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary in Alpena.
“The vast majority of shipwrecks that occurred on the Great Lakes occurred because they hit the bottom. They are running up on reefs. They are getting blown ashore,” he said.
“It wasn’t uncommon for a single vessel to go aground dozens of times in its lifetime. The other thing that we have are intentional abandonments, historic vessels that were scrapped.
A generation ago, the average visibility may have been about 20 feet. But the arrival of invasive species has turned the water often so clear, providing dramatic views from a considerable distance, he said.
Some of the wreck sites are so populated by sunken ships that a veritable history of shipbuilding can be viewed within several hundred yards, a congregation of vessels from different eras.
Shipwreck map and app organizers said they hope the online resources increase the interest of younger folks in the shipwrecks, so the often-voluntary efforts of preservation are continued.
“I want to get the next generation interested in this stuff,” Bloomfield said. “Because that is the only way this is going to continue, is if we get people interested.”
The shipwrecks will play a prominent role Tuesday through Thursday at Central Michigan, as part of the Underwater Cultural Resources Public Access and Research Conference that examines public access to Michigan's underwater cultural resources.
The annual Great Lakes Shipwreck Festival follows on Saturday from 8:30 a.m to 5 p.m. at Washtenaw Community College, 4800 East Huron River Drive in Ann Arbor.
The festival features presentations about specific shipwrecks and information about how to explore them.
“Michigan has a unique shipwrecks to dive and view,” Clark said.
“...I’m not a diver. But, I have been out on a glass bottom boat and, boy, the first time you go over one of those, even if it’s a barge, which is not a dramatic shipwreck, it gives you goosebumps.”