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Scouring Superior’s lake floor for Great Lakes shipwrecks

a photo of a 200-year-old shipwreck at the bottom of Lake Superior
Bruce Lynn
Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society
One of the three shipwrecks that the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society discovered and identified in 2021.

It’s been a busy year for the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society, which has discovered a record-high nine shipwrecks across Michigan’s lakes.

“Between the great weather that we had up here on Lake Superior, having a good crew that we could rely on...You put those factors together, and we were very, very fortunate to find these shipwrecks,” said Bruce Lynn, executive director of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum.

Although they’re still waiting on positive identifications for the last six of their discoveries, the first three have been identified as the Dot, the Frank W. Wheeler, and the Michigan. That’s one schooner and two schooner-barges, respectively. The Dot and the Frank both sank in the 1880s, while the Michigan went down in 1901.

“The Dot was a schooner-barge. So when I say that, imagine a schooner that's had its masts cut down, and it's being towed by steamship,” Lynn said. “You read a lot about these fall storms that hit, and some of these schooners and schooner-barges would just get into trouble.”

The Dot was being towed by a steamship, the M.M. Drake, Lynn recounted. After the Dot began sinking, the Drake sailed over to the ship and welcomed its passengers aboard.

The sinking of the Frank W. Wheeler was “a very similar situation” to the Dot, Lynn said. The schooner-barge was being towed by a different steamship, the Kittie M. Forbes, when it started taking on water. The Kittie M. Forbes was unable to reach the Wheeler before it submerged, so the crew was forced to board lifeboats as their ship went under.

The third shipwreck, the Michigan, involves the aforementioned M.M. Drake steamship.

“Makes you wonder—was the Drake a bad-luck ship? Who knows?” Lynn said.

“[The Drake] was towing the Michigan in this case, and they were in the vicinity of the Vermilion Point life-saving station. And the Michigan was in trouble. And the Drake swings back around to go get the crew off, and they did get the crew off.

“But then, suddenly a massive wave smashed the two ships together and knocked the smokestack off of the Drake, and one of the deck cabins got smashed,” Lynn said. “And now suddenly you've got the Drake out there and this terrible storm, and they don't have any steam power.”

Fortunately, there were two other steamboats out that night, and they were able to rescue the majority of the crews from both the Michigan and the M.M. Drake. But tragically, the storm took the life of one crew member.

“The cook from the Michigan, a man by the name of Harry Brown. One newspaper article I read said that he was an older gentleman. He wasn't able to make that jump, going from the Drake on to one of those bigger steel ships.”

Lynn and company at the Shipwreck Society gather information such as this from newspaper archives, in addition to the actual shipwrecks themselves. He says that, while discoveries allow them to learn about ships of the past and their technology, they also have “answered questions for descendants of the crew or the officers that might have been on board a particular ship,” Lynn said.

After a 2014 discovery of the Nelson, which sank in 1899 in Lake Superior, made the news, the Shipwreck Society received a call from a Texas resident. It turned out that her great grandfather was the captain of the sunken ship. Then, shortly after that, they received an email from a CMU student, who was related to the Nelson’s first mate.

“There's always going to be certain mysteries” about the nature of a shipwreck, Lynn said, “but it also helps the families connect, too.”

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Lucas is a senior at Michigan State University studying professional and public writing. He has previously worked as a co-director of editing for VIM, an MSU fashion magazine. An aspiring music journalist, Lucas dreams of getting paid to go to concerts. He is also a screenwriter. When he’s not working, he can be found walking around aimlessly, listening to either punk rock or Kacey Musgraves.
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