Resources & Research

Shipwrecks No Longer Lost to History

Alpena’s Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary

By Rene Rosencrantz Wheaton

Location: Alpena
Population: 10,483

In this life-size Great Lakes schooner, visitors can experience a simulated Great Lakes storm—they can even grab the wheel and pretend to captain the ship.

Seemingly lost to history, hundreds of ships lay at the bottom of Thunder Bay, victims of a lake that too often became a thrashing sea. But those destructive waters have also worked to preserve their prey. Today, shipwrecks spanning from the 1840s to the 1960s are protected as part of the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary. “It’s really like a national park spanning 450 square miles in Lake Huron, where we are working to preserve and protect a spectacular collection of shipwrecks,” said Jeff Gray, the superintendent of the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

The Thunder Bay Sanctuary is one of 14 national marine sanctuaries and the only one in the Great Lakes. “It has a huge impact on Alpena,” said Alpena’s Mayor Carol Shafto. “It’s a unique draw. There is not another sanctuary like it anywhere. It’s the only national fresh water sanctuary and it’s the only one dedicated to preserving a collection of shipwrecks. It draws visitors from the state, the nation, and even internationally.” First established in 2000, the sanctuary and its visitor facility the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center, 500 W. Fletcher in Alpena, attract approximately 70,000 visitors a year.

Deb Pardike, executive director of the Alpena Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the sanctuary is at the center of its efforts to promote Alpena as a maritime heritage destination. “We’re able to promote the sanctuary and at the same time, promote our lighthouses and our community,” Pardike said.

Shipping Heritage
Thunder Bay boasts a 200-year-old shipping industry, which was often tragic in the days before modern sonar navigation. Ships collided in foggy conditions or were sunk by nasty weather. “Several circumstances came together to cause so many ships to sink,” Gray explained. “In the 19th century, ship trade on Lake Huron fueled the whole nation, so there was a lot of traffic, there are also reefs and islands to navigate and two different weather patterns come together in the area.”

The area was so prolific in its ability to claim the ships traversing its waters that it became known as “Shipwreck Alley.” More than 200 ships are thought to rest at the bottom of the bay, but only a little more than half of those have been located. “We have a unique range of shipwrecks…some are in shallow water and some are very deep,” Gray said. “There are ships that are very early and there are more modern craft, well-preserved at the bottom of the lake.”

Because of Lake Huron’s cold, fresh water, the shipwrecks found on its floor have escaped the corrosive elements that have eaten away at ships resting in warm and salty waters. Lake Huron’s waters also have great visibility, making shipwrecks in shallow depths visible to those in kayaks on the lake’s surface.

While avid divers knew of the historical treasures at the bottom of Thunder Bay, it was less known with the general public. “Getting the area established as a National Marine Sanctuary has really raised awareness across the country and even the world,” Gray said. “We’ve had visitors from all over including Europe and Asia.”

Attractions for Everyone
The sanctuary has also been a draw for researchers, including Robert Ballard who is famous for discovering the wreckage of the R.M.S. Titanic, and Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of Jacques Cousteau. Researchers have come to look for wrecks, to perform sonar and mapping the shipwrecks and to study the lake’s fisheries and the invasive species affecting Lake Huron. While not everyone can scuba dive to the bottom of the lake to get a first-hand look at the ships, the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center offers landlubbers a taste of life on the water. “Families are pretty surprised when they come to visit because there really is something for everyone,” Gray said.

Among the favorites is an exhibit featuring a life-size section of a schooner where people can relive what it would have been like to be tossed on Lake Huron’s stormy waves. “It gives people a chance to experience a particular culture,” Pardike said. “They can hop on board the schooner and see what is was like to be aboard a ship. A visitor can grab the wheel and pretend to captain the ship through a violent Lake Huron Storm.” The experience is quite convincing; Gray said they’ve even had a few people become sea sick.

“We also have what we call ‘dive tubes’ that the kids can crawl through, they are clear and they simulate what it is like to dive over a shipwreck,” he said. “I say kids, but we had a 93-yearold crawl through them. They are fun for everyone.”

In addition, a new glass bottom boat,, will begin tours in June. It will give an even wider audience a chance to experience the historical treasures found on the lake floor. “We’re very excited about the new glass bottom boat,” said Shafto. “Not everyone is a diver—I’m not a diver. This gives visitors one more way to experience the shallow wrecks.”

Economic Draw
The Great Lakes have long been one of Michigan’s greatest resources, but the ships the lakes claimed are growing in their importance too. “The sanctuary has definitely spurred economic growth,” Pardike said. “We wouldn’t have our new shipwreck tour if it weren’t for the existence of the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary. It’s a big attraction unto itself, and it will only draw more visitors and entrepreneurs.”

While much of the sanctuary’s job is about the past—highlighting and preserving it, Gray sees it playing an important role in Alpena’s future, too. “Shipping is still so critical to a state. It still is playing an important role culturally and commercially and I hope that the sanctuary brings that to people’s attention.” Gray said.
“The Edmund Fitzgerald sinking in 1975 (in Lake Superior) is a reminder that men and women leave dock everyday and just because ships sinking are infrequent today, doesn’t lessen the inherent danger there.”

Rene Rosencrantz Wheaton is a freelance writer. You may contact her at 810-444-3827.

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