Thunder Bay Wrecks near Alpena a Northern Michigan Diving Destination

The Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary is an unlikely Northern Michigan attraction filled with ill-fated boats: Forty-five known shipwrecks, and possibly a hundred more, lie beneath the volatile waters of the Northern Michigan diving destination that is Thunder Bay.  The following article on Northern Michigan diving was first featured in the June 2014 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.

Today, that observation is on my mind as the Lady Michigan leaves its docking spot along the Thunder Bay River and motors into a Great Lake swelling under darkening summer skies.

“Hold on,” guide Stephanie Gandulla shouts as the heaving boat tips a few unsteady passengers into their seats. “We like to think it adds to the atmosphere,” she says.

The Montana

The lumber carrier Montana

The marine archaeologist and outreach coordinator for the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary continues to narrate as the glass-bottom tour boat pushes from wave crest to trough above the lake floor, and a movie of sorts unfolds through glass panels on the lower deck. Fish dart through flickering pools of light, and then a piece of wood emerges—the spine, Gandulla tells us, of the bulk freighter Monohansett, sunk in a storm and resulting fire in November 1907. We pass over planks, then an engine, then a massive propeller, all showcasing in a particularly real way the story of passengers who would have met a sure death if not for the heroism of a nearby lifesaving-station crew.

This wreck preserved in 18 feet of clear, cold Lake Huron waters, Gandulla notes, is just the barest hint of the collection of shipwrecks that lie within the boundaries of the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Of the nation’s 14 official national marine sanctuaries, this is the only one located in fresh water, and it’s one of only two protecting cultural as well as marine natural resources. Some 45 identified wrecks are located within the 450-square-mile preserve off Alpena’s shores, wrecks like that of the Pewabic, whose sinking shortly after the Civil War’s end claimed the lives of as many as 100 people as well as livestock milling in cargo holds. As many as 100 more wrecks are believed to lie undiscovered here and within a proposed expansion area that—as early as this summer—could extend federal resource protection and research dollars to an area 4,300 miles square.

Newly protected wrecks would further tell the story of America’s marine highways, says James Delgato, maritime heritage program director for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s national marine sanctuary program. He dove as a member of the original team that selected the location of the sanctuary, which was designed in 2000, and he was captivated by the story he saw of America’s lumber, farm goods and iron ore.

Historical photos of ships tell the story somewhat, Delgato concedes, “but what was down there on the bottom was an incredible museum, if you will, of the real thing.”

What people don’t understand is just how rare the quality of the Thunder Bay shipwreck collection is. Ocean divers can certainly find pieces of wrecks, Delgato says, but most ocean wrecks have been destroyed by salt water and sea creatures. Highly skilled divers can head deep into the cold waters of the Baltic for a peek at dramatic Swedish warships with carved dragons, but otherwise, it’s only in the Great Lakes, he says, that divers find wrecks that are in some cases nearly identical to what they looked like when they sank. Yet as important as protecting wrecks is for purposes of history, recreation and tourism, it’s the thrill of discovery that excites Delgato most about the potential of Thunder Bay.

“What making it a sanctuary has done is make sure some guy hasn’t cut [a shipwreck’s] porthole off for his living room. You have that arrested sense of time that makes everyone feel like the first explorer there. This really is the last frontier, and there’s still a role for any kid or lifelong learner who wants to go there, to quest, to boldly go, to venture.”

Project Shiphunt

Tirrea Billings recalls she thought, Why not? when a counselor sought five students from her Saginaw High School to be part of a shipwreck hunt and companion film documentary. The venture, called appropriately enough “Project Shiphunt,” grew from a collaboration between the Thunder Bay sanctuary and Sony, which was looking to test the capabilities of a new laptop, perhaps by using it to find a shipwreck. Russ Green, the sanctuary’s deputy superintendent and research coordinator suggested recruiting high schoolers as researchers and expedition leads. What Green and Delgato especially liked about the idea is Project Shiphunt served the four key sanctuary missions: discovery, education, protection and quest.

It was a taxing and tedius five-day process, Billing says, to figure out where a ship might be located, what it was carrying and in what condition the hunters might find it. “But at the end we got to say, ‘Wow. This ship actually occurred in history. It was sunk for 100 years and we found it again.’ ”

On the last of the five expedition days, she was on monitor watch as another student was manning the joystick that ran the remote operated vehicle exploring the depths (his many hours of video-game playing were paying off).

“I was looking out, and when the ship came into focus,” Billings says, “I was like, ‘Wait. Wait. Go back. I think I see something.’ It ended up not being the ship we were looking for (the Chocktaw), but we found one, and then another.”

One was the M.K. Merrick, which sank May 17, 1889—122 years to the day before the student discovery. Five lives were lost in the wreck, including that of Mrs. Cole, the cook.
Connecting with a human story helps open eyes to other critical issues facing oceans and lakes, Delgato says.

The project also opened the students’ eyes to different career possibilities. “I think it inspired us to keep working hard, working toward your dreams, and that whatever opportunity comes, you should take it full force,” Billings says. She just wrapped up her sophomore year at Alma College, where she’s studying documentary filmmaking.

Those who don’t get the chance to discover a shipwreck firsthand with high-tech electronics can still explore—via snorkeling and dives. Buoys scattered throughout the sanctuary waters mark the shipwreck locations, making it easy for boats to moor for a snorkel trip without impacting a wreck and for scuba divers to find their way to the bottom.

The glass-bottom boat offers another exploration option, as does school curriculum based on shipwrecks. Research dives occasionally broadcast for public interaction, and a visitor center built and run by NOAA presents remarkable backstory and context. The possibilities that the resource offered was always there, but it was “locked in magical shipwrecks beneath the water,” Green says. “It was hard to tease the meaning out of them. We’ve helped to do that.”

The exhibits opened in the Thunder Bay sanctuary museum, a one-time paper factory, in 2008. The centerpiece is a full-sized wooden ship, crafted by a shipbuilder with experience in replica schooners and featuring old sails with their trademark musty sailcloth, and a ship floor tilted as if riding out a storm.

From the sound system booms the voice of a captain, calling all hands to deck, as lights flicker. The sounds of waves and thunder are as real as the actual storm from which they were recorded. Other displays tell the story of the evolution of Great Lakes crafts, from dugout canoes through modern freighters. Perhaps most compelling is the displayed collection of artifacts removed from the storied wrecks (none were removed after the sanctuary was established). For visitors, the artifacts often bring forth the first emotional response to the tragedies, outreach coordinator Gandulla says. “When any human comes in to see a shoe off the Pewabic, that [hits] you smack dab in the face.”

What the sanctuary doesn’t do, says local dive shop owner Steve Kroll, is what he and many others originally feared—restrict rather than improve access to wrecks. The “Say No to NOAA” signs that he and others originally carried have been replaced by strong support for sanctuary expansion. At the time, a referendum opposing the sanctuary passed by a 3 to 1 margin, he says. Today, Alpena promotes itself as the Sanctuary of the Great Lakes.

“It turned out they are guaranteeing our rights to utilize it while at the same time protecting it,” says Kroll, a former teacher who ran a remote-operated vehicle club connected with the sanctuary. “It’s working out to be a wonderful thing, especially in the ability of the sanctuary to tie everything together, like a web—it’s reaching out into education systems and into the county and local establishments to enhance tourism and other businesses. “The way I look at it, everybody chips in a dime, and you’re going to get $50 worth out of it for the area.”

Nothing beats the experience, though, of seeing a wreck preserved with its original rigging, dishes still in the ship cupboards. Case in point, Kroll took a gentleman from Germany diving, a client who was wondering about wreck quality, not quite believing the photos he’d seen from Thunder Bay. The German made his first dive on the Florida, a wooden steamer still loaded with general merchandise, dishes, farm equipment, lanterns, barrels of flour. The Florida lies 170 feet down to the deck, 200 feet to the mud.

When the diver surfaced, he looked at Kroll and said, “I just learned something about you.”

“What’s that?” Kroll asked.

“You’re not a liar. This is unbelievably the best wreck I’ve ever dived in my life.”

“I have eight or nine more here equally good,” Kroll told his client.

Research Projects

Most summer days at the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, you’ll find researchers like the University of Michigan’s Earth and Environmental Science professor Gregory Dick heading out with divers to explore what lies beneath and around the many shipwrecks protected in sanctuary waters.

Near what’s called Middle Island, for example, Robert Ballard—best known for discovering the Titanic—in 2001 discovered an ancient sinkhole when using a sophisticated sonar system to find new wrecks. There, bright purple microbial mats, described by divers as “Dr. Seuss-like” for their comically bright colors and conical shapes, offer a window into the origins of earth and the ability of a planet to sustain life, Dick says.

Elsewhere, the sanctuary protects a site that U of M’s John O’Shea calls the equivalent of a “9,000-year-old Pompeii” for its growing evidence of ancient settlement and advanced hunting strategies in a site so well preserved. O’Shea considers it globally rare.

Russ Green, the sanctuary’s deputy director and research coordinator, says that while Thunder Bay studies initially focused on documenting and protecting wrecks, work has evolved in ways beneficial to both the sanctuary and science.

Invasive species, for example, became an area of research interest around 2000, mainly because of the way zebra mussels had begun coating previously pristine wrecks that year. And when a military research study needed to test a free-swimming autonomous underwater vehicle with sophisticated sonar, Green offered the sanctuary as a spot for sleuthing out potential shipwrecks. “They were pleased to see how a target showed up on their sonar image,” he says, “and we got a great sonar image of a shipwreck (believed to be the Egyptian, an early 1870s bulk freighter).”

But some of the most fascinating work relates to the sinkholes and ancient hunting ground, Green says.

The Seuss-like cyanobacteria that thrives in the high-sulfur, low-oxygen groundwater emerging from the sinkholes provides a rare window into the conditions thought responsible for first oxygenating the earth and enabling it to support life, Dick says. It may offer clues into how other planets could support life and may also be of value in the development of new antibiotics—another active research area at the site.

Farther offshore, at the site of the underwater ancient hunting site, anthropology professor O’Shea hopes he might, as early as this summer, discover evidence of ancient home sites, perhaps also of animal bones, which are better preserved in water than on land. He’s worked with Wayne State computer science professors to simulate caribou migrations and has already identified evidence of complex hunting blinds—two long lines of stone eight meters apart that he surmises was used as a way to channel caribou to a natural dead end. What that suggests, he says, is that some 9,000 years ago—when the lake levels were far lower—people were not only hunting here but also gathering together to perhaps exchange recipes and information. O’Shea strongly favors the proposed sanctuary expansion, since much of the anthropological site lies outside current boundaries. Enlarging the boundary, for example, would protect the site from military testing or anything else that could disrupt the lake bottom. “No place outside the Arctic,” he says, “can you get this view of how these past people lived.”

Divers exploring the Spangler

Divers exploring the Kyle Spangler

Notable Shipwrecks

  • The Kyle Spangler

The crew of the Kyle Spangler would have been forgiven for suspecting its ship was cursed, despite the notoriety of its talented and prolific builder, William Augustus Jones. Three times prior to its final accident, the ship suffered damage or ran aground. The “canaller” was constructed to maximize space and yet still fit through the Erie Canal—a popular route for carrying grain from Midwestern fields—and grain was the Spangler’s cargo the night of November 5, 1850, as it attempted a last run of the season in the fog of early November. The ship was loaded in Chicago with 15,000 bushels of corn and headed to Buffalo, New York when the ship Racine appeared out of nowhere, striking and sinking the Spangler in minutes. The crew all survived, though, and the ship apparently glided straight down to the lake bottom where it sits still, nearly intact, in 185 feet of water—mast upright, furniture still on board, bottles, dishes and a compass on deck.

  • The Pewabic

The evening dance was well underway on the steam-propelled freight and passenger carrier notable for its ornate cabins, skylights and orchestra, which was playing on deck August 9, 1865, as the Pewabic traveled from Detour Village toward Detroit with 267 tons of valuable Upper Peninsula copper, 179 tons of iron ore and even more valuable cargo. The Civil War had ended just three months earlier, and Union soldiers traveling from their Fort Mackinac posts were mingling with tourists, families and crew.

The lake was described as still as glass when the boat inexplicably steered in front of its sister ship, the Meteor, and the Pewabic went down in four minutes, with one survivor: An unidentified man tossed his baby on board the Meteor—a child later adopted by a Meteor officer—in what’s often counted among the worst disasters on the Great Lakes. The tragedy was compounded by the way several divers lost their lives in salvage attempts for the pricey copper and other treasures rumored to be on board.

As the Salt Lake Telegram newspaper wrote: “The Pewabic, in her short life [launched the year before the wreck] as the classiest packet freight and passenger boat of her day, had conquered the gray ghosts of October’s sleeted winds from Manitoulin and plowed, blind, through snows from the stretches of Canada that ride over Huron from the Goderich. Fogs blanketing out from the Soo, gales from Owen sound—all the lakes’ threats she had defied. But she took 125 people to the bottom in four minutes against a flaming sunset.”

  • The Joseph Fay

One of the first Great Lakes freighters built for the iron ore trade, the wooden steamer Joseph S. Fay sailed, as it always did, with its partner ship, the schooner D. P. Rhodes. On October 19, 1905, the boats headed into stormy waves, traveling from Escanaba to Ashtabula, Ohio, and the Fay wasn’t far from the 40 Mile Point when the captain hugged the coast as protection from a violent wind. When the wind suddenly shifted, the Fay broke free from the Rhodes, lost some of its stern and started to sink. The crew crowded into the forward cabin, accounts say, as water rushed into the hull. The captain’s plan to head for the 40 Mile Point Light Station turned out to be a good one. Even though the bow struck a sandbar, ripping off the entire forward cabin, huge waves lifted the boat onto shore near the light station—where much of the wreck is still visible on the beach—saving the captain and 10 crew members who stayed safe inside the cabin. Those who tried paddling to shore weren’t as lucky; one was overcome by cold and lost.

June 2014 Red Hot Best of Northern Michigan issue of Traverse MagazineMore Northern Michigan Outdoors