The Great Lakes present pristine, beautiful waterways that many people enjoy. However, the waters are not always calm and inviting. Throughout history, these waters have seen their fair share of disasters. Shipwrecks have occurred in every lake of the Great Lakes, with several ships and their wreckage peppering the bottom of our lakes, while others have been destroyed or repurposed.
Many ships have never been found, so an exact number remains unknown, but the Great Lakes Shipwreck museum estimates around 6,000 ships have sunk, with around 30,000 lives lost to the depths of our Great Lakes. Here are the stories of just a few of the many shipwrecks of the Great Lakes, several of which you can either visit museums that memorialize the ships and the lives lost in these disasters, or ones where you can actually explore the wreckage personally.
SS G.P. Griffith – Lake Eerie
A tragic story for many, the sinking of the SS G.P. Griffith is the third greatest loss of life in any Great Lakes nautical disaster. In the early hours of June 17, 1850, the SS G.P. Griffith was carrying 326 passengers, primarily immigrants, when a fire broke out. While the ship’s captain ordered the course be changed to move towards the shore, the ship unfortunately hit a sandbar less than half a mile from the beach. Many people burned to death aboard the ship, while others drowned trying to reach the shore.
The total number of fatalities is unknown as the ship’s records were destroyed, but it’s estimated to be anywhere from 241 to 289 deaths. Only 37 survivors were accounted for, only one of them a woman. Many victims were never identified as they were traveling immigrants, who tragically met their end as they were on their way to creating a better life for themselves and their families. Though the wreck was brought to shore and does not remain, a great plaque memorializes the disaster in a park in Willowick, Ohio.
PS Lady Elgin– Lake Michigan
Fated for disaster, the Lady Elgin was a passenger steamship, regarded as one of the most elegant passenger ships on the Great Lakes at the time. In the early hours of September 8, 1860, Lady Elgin found herself in a storm, and was rammed into by the schooner Augusta of Oswego, whose second mate had spotted the Lady Elgin half an hour prior to the collision, but failed to change course until 10 minutes away from collision. The result was a horrific crash, which resulted in over 300 deaths, leaving it to remain the greatest loss of life on open water in Great Lakes History.
Outcry over the incident led to regulation for ships, resulting in legislation requiring ships to have running lights to make themselves visible to other ships, as the Augusta had only one small light on at the time of the incident. The wreck of the Lady Elgin was not found until 1989 near Highwood, Illinois, by Harry Zych, who was awarded ownership of the wreck. Divers are able to explore the protected wreck with his and the Lady Elgin Foundation’s permission.
SS Edmund Fitzgerald – Lake Superior
Perhaps the most famous and well-known mysterious shipwreck of the Great Lakes is that of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald. Chances are you’ve heard the song by Gordon Lightfoot illustrating the doomed last journey of the fated ship. There is a lot of speculation as to the circumstances surrounding the sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, which disappeared into the depths of Lake Superior in the early evening of November 10, 1975, taking the whole crew with it.
Navigating stormy waters in Lake Superior, Captain Ernest M. McSorley had been in contact with a nearby ship that had sailed with the Edmund Fitzgerald since their departure from Minnesota. Attempting to reach safety at Whitefish Point, the SS Edmund Fitzgerald sailed through a shoal with dangerously shallow water. From then, massive waves presumably overtook the vessel. The cause for sinking is still widely debated, as the captain never made a distress call, and had even assured the neighboring ship that conditions were still favorable. Just twelve minutes after that last interaction, the SS Edmond Fitzgerald lost contact and was never heard from or seen again.
A visit to the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, located at Whitefish Point, gives an in-depth view of the tragedy of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald. Twenty years after the incident, efforts to retrieve the bell of the ship were successful, in honor to give the families of the victims closure. This memorial is on display at the Shipwreck Museum from mid-May to mid-October.
SS Regina – Lake Huron
A sad tale indeed, the SS Regina was claimed by the waters of Lake Huron during the infamous Great Lakes Storm of 1913, which was a powerful blizzard with hurricane-force winds that resulted in a whopping 12 sunken ships and over 250 fatalities. The SS Regina found herself caught in the storm, and tried to navigate the rough waters, which were producing waves over 35 feet in places. Eventually, the ship hit a shoal and started taking on water from the damage, and the captain decided to anchor the ship off the coast of Lexington, Michigan. The crew evacuated, but the captain stayed with his ship, and ultimately sank with it into the depths of Lake Huron only 35 minutes after anchoring. Although the crew managed to board life boats, not a single member survived, and only 12 bodies were ever found, 10 that washed ashore and 2 found in a capsized lifeboat.
After going down, the SS Regina remained lost until her discovery in 1986, where she was found upside down under 80 feet of water. It is now a popular spot with divers, and is still mostly intact to this day. You can visit The Port Huron Museum, where artifacts from this tragic are on exhibit, and some were once for sale!
HMS St. Lawrence – Lake Ontario
This shipwreck has less of a harrowing story than most! This ship was commissioned as a warship for the War of 1812, which ultimately led the British to claim undisputed command of Lake Ontario. After only a few months of service and never seeing battle, The HMS St. Lawrence was decommissioned in 1815 and sold in 1832. Her hull was used as part of a pier, and later intentionally sunk into 30 feet of water. The wreckage can be found in Kingston, Ontario and is a popular spot among shipwreck enthusiasts as it is a shallow and easy dive!
The shipwrecks of the Great Lakes provide an interesting look at the history of these waterways, with ships dating back to colonial times! Efforts are still ongoing to discover lost ships, which is an exciting pastime for some. Visit one of the many maritime museums located throughout the Great Lakes State to learn more about the interesting and tragic shipwrecks that transpired in these waters, and to honor those who lost their lives. Which Great Lakes Shipwreck do you find most interesting? Comment to share your thoughts!