Fascinating, dramatic stories are told at this remote facility on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
By Nancy Baren Miller, F176955
Those who have heard Gordon Lightfoot’s 1976 ballad, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” often find it indelibly imprinted in their memory. For those who don’t know the story told in that song, here ’tis: On November 9, 1975, the Fitzgerald left Superior, Wisconsin, bound for Detroit, Michigan, loaded with 26,000 tons of iron ore pellets. It was a sunny day. The voyage abruptly ended November 10, however, after a “perfect storm” hit the lake. The boat sank along with its entire 29-man crew.
The great boat lies in two pieces in Canadian waters, 17 miles from Whitefish Bay, Michigan. The captain sought shelter near Whitefish Point on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula that fateful night. The point is considered the turning area for all shipping traffic entering and leaving Lake Superior.
While many recognize the Edmund Fitzgerald as one of the Great Lakes’ most famous shipwrecks, few realize that 6,000 shipwrecks have occurred in all five of the lakes since Europeans first came to the shores. Lake Superior claims more than 550 of these tragedies.
The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum on Michigan’s Whitefish Point is the only museum of its kind. But it doesn’t just focus on tragedy “” it tells great history lessons and contains a wealth of relics brought to the surface by folks who literally dive into the past. Plus, it preserves an important lighthouse.
You can spend several hours touring the museum, the restored lighthouse keeper’s quarters, the boathouse, and a video theater. The museum is open only in the warmer months, however “” May 1 through October 31. The remainder of the year it’s open by appointment only.
At the museum, stroll around from left to right, starting with the French explorers’ discovery of Lake Superior. Then learn the various stories of 13 shipwrecks in chronological order, beginning with the Independence, a steamship that sank in 1853. You’ll observe artifacts from the ships; inspect models of them; and read detailed explanations of their shipwreck dates, how the incidents occurred, and what happened to the crew.
One interesting vessel was the freighter Issac M. Scott. During its maiden voyage in July 1909, while rolling through dense morning fog near Whitefish Point, it T-boned a steel steamer, the John B. Cowle. The Cowle plunged to the lakebed with a loss of 14 sailors “” more than half of its crew. The survivors were taken aboard the Issac M. Scott. Four years later, during the Great Storm of 1913, the Scott and all of its crew perished at Thunder Bay.
A Second Order Fresnel lens from the lighthouse at White Shoals, an island reef in Lake Michigan, also is on display. Fresnels are rated from one to seven, with one being the strongest.
The museum’s highlight is the 200-pound bronze bell recovered from the Edmund Fitzgerald by the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society on July 4, 1995. The expedition was conducted jointly with the National Geographic Society, Canadian Navy, Sony Corporation, and the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians. At the museum, see the special diving equipment used in this task. In the Shipwreck Theater, a video depicts how the old bell was removed and replaced with a new brass bell engraved with the names of the lost crew.
Outside on the grounds of the museum is Whitehouse Point Lighthouse, the oldest active lighthouse on Lake Superior. By 1846, the waters that extend west along the 80-mile stretch between Whitefish Point and Munising, Michigan, had seen so many shipwrecks that it was given the title “The Shipwreck Coast of Lake Superior.” The lake was navigated only by using a compass. The need for a lighthouse was recognized by the U.S. Congress, but delayed because of its expense.
Horace Greeley, then the editor of The New York Tribune, sailed across Lake Superior in the spring of 1846 and recognized the danger. His editorials brought so much pressure on Congress that they appropriated funds for a stone lighthouse on March 3, 1847. The light tower and keepers’ residence were completed by November 1848 and placed in operation during the spring of 1851. But Lake Superior’s cold winds caused the structure to deteriorate rapidly.
One of President Abraham Lincoln’s first acts was the authorization of the current “iron pile” skeletal light tower, assembled in 1861. Although you cannot enter the lighthouse, you can visit the lightkeeper’s home, which was constructed at the same time.
Between 1848 and 1883, 10 different lightkeepers served at Whitefish Point. In 1895, the home was converted from a single-family dwelling into a duplex, providing housing for two keepers and their families. A third keeper, serving as second assistant, and his family lived in a small house now occupied by the parking lot.
Charles Kimball’s 1883 post as lightkeeper lasted 20 years. He was replaced by Robert Carlson in July 1903. Carlson and his family lived for 28 years at the light. Their granddaughter was Bertha Endress Rollo.
Bertha came to the Point on her grandfather’s fishing tug in 1910 when she was 2 weeks old. What guests see now is an accurate restoration representing the 1910-1920 period, based on her extensive written recollections. “She told me every last detail “” what the rooms were colored, where the furniture sat,” said Tom Farnquist, executive director of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society, the organization in charge of the museum.
You’ll see Bertha’s room, where you’ll spot her baptism papers on the wall, as well as her grandparents’ marriage certificate. Downstairs in the living room hang many pictures Bertha provided the museum. “This is the equivalent of what would have been today’s family room,” Farnquist said. “Back then they held dances in here. They moved the furniture aside. The Coast Guard would come over and man the lifesaving station. Bertha recalls how they played the organ and the banjo.”
Be sure to walk into the dining room and the kitchen, where Grandmother Carlson prepared meals of fish, venison, wildfowl, vegetables, and blueberries that the family gathered from the land. Lightkeepers were the only parties who were allowed to set fish nets in the waters adjacent to the lighthouse properties.
After visiting the quarters, stop by the 1923 U.S. Coast Guard Surfboat House. Its exhibits interpret the history of the U.S. Life Saving Service, which became the Coast Guard in 1915. Look for the beach cart used to haul around all kinds of things for the beach. And be sure to notice the replica of the Beebe McClellan, a 26-foot self-bailing surfboat.
The McClellan could accommodate eight men, who rowed the boat into the lake to rescue sailors in distress. The coxswain steered it. The men took the craft on practice runs every Tuesday.
“It was the heart and soul of lifesaving efforts,” Farnquist said.
Near the Surfboat House is a beach, which provides a wonderful view of Lake Superior. Stand on the boardwalk and just observe. It’s hard to believe that this peaceful scene is the site of so many historic shipwrecks littering the bottom of Lake Superior around Whitefish Point.
Through underwater detective work and wreck site re-creation, the Shipwreck Museum’s exhibits will grow. The Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society already has surveyed and located other historical shipwreck sites; in August 2007 researchers found the Cyprus, a 420-foot-long ore ship that sank in 1907. It is hoped that eventually more space can be added to the museum to display what divers find.
End your stay with a stop at the museum store. It features art, limited-edition prints, fine apparel, nautical souvenirs, and books about the shipwrecks.
If You Go
The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum is located at Whitefish Point on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (18335 N. Whitefish Point Road, Paradise, MI 49768). It is an hour north of the Mackinac Bridge and 20 minutes from Tahquamenon Falls State Park.
The road can accommodate motorhomes, and a special parking lot designed for large RVs and commercial tour buses is available. However, no overnight parking is permitted at the museum.
The museum is open daily from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., from May 1 to October 31. Admission is $12 for adults, $8 for children under 17, and $32 per family (two adults and two or more children under age 17). Children under 5 are admitted free. Call (888) 492-3747 or visit www.shipwreckmuseum.com for more details.