Erosion from fall storms and record high water levels revealing shipwrecks
By Jed Jaworski
Northwest Michigan residents know when “that feel is in the air,” a sense that an epic and timeless battle between the north and south winds will soon be taking place here on the Lake Michigan coast—when “the witch of November come stealin’,” as singer Gordon Lightfoot relates in his ballad “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”.
For instance, with a keen eye to his barometer and intimate understanding of the lake, longtime Frankfort resident and commercial fisherman Captain Charles Anderson would foretell the coming of what he coined an “equinoxial blow” to prepare the harbor community for the coming weather. Mariners understand fall gales on the lake are the deadliest and most feared. Fighting monstrous waves while sheathed in ice, entire ships have gone missing.
This year, that fall fury had a new partner: record high water levels.
If anyone went down to the shore during the multitude of fall gales that we have experienced this year, they would have witnessed entire trees, docks, patio decks, stairways, and picnic tables being speedily swept along in the longshore currents. Additionally, many floodplains are blocked or submerged; coupled with deeper water in the channels, this means that storm energy from Lake Michigan enters the harbor at will with destructive force. Along the Lake Michigan coastline—with gentle, wide beaches now submerged—the waves strike with savage fury, undercutting the shoreline and toppling all manner of things into the deadly surf.
And while people are largely focused on what is being lost “on” the coast, there are some notable concerns for what lies beneath: a buried maritime legacy, now being unearthed.
Though the cold, fresh waters of the Great Lakes are unparalleled for their preservation of shipwrecks in the depths, there are also thousands of ships wrecked on the shores that have literally been lying preserved beneath our feet—until now.
Current high water levels, and the coastal erosion that comes along with them, are uncovering shipwreck remains which have rested below the beaches and dunes for centuries—in some instances, since the very storm that claimed them and cast their broken hulls under the sands.
While some of these remains may become reburied, many are succumbing to the ravages of this unprecedented time. Between April and September, more than 50 instances were reported to the state, according to The Detroit News. And just last month, on the night before Thanksgiving, a storm surge uncovered a 19th-century, 86-foot shipwreck off the coast of private property near Muskegon, as reported by MLive.
Government officials told The Betsie Current that they expect even more archeological sites to become unearthed in the coming months, with even higher water levels expected for next year.
Wayne Lusardi is a maritime archeologist for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR). He has been working with the State Historic Preservation Office to pre-plan responses for high-value archeological sites that may uncover and/or be put at risk, due to high water and coastal erosion.
“We have had a noted increase in reports associated with shipwreck remains being discovered on the Great Lakes shorelines” remarks Lusardi, who is based in Alpena at the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center. “It has been a mixed blessing; on the one hand, we are now aware of more sites and often able to view and document sites that have [previously] been buried and inaccessible. On the other hand, these sites— once revealed and exposed to the elements—may be at risk of damage or loss.”
Find A Shipwreck?
For the casual beach-walker and those who enjoy the lore of the lakes, this is an opportunity for some unique beach-combing experiences. But how does someone recognize debris from a shipwreck, compared to pieces of a deck that have washed up?
While there are all manner of debris cast along the beach—especially this year—most shipwreck remains are rather distinct. Vessels were nearly exclusively built of heavy oak timbers, often curved and fastened with large iron pins hammered on one end. Though seawall remains may also be built of oak, the boards are seldom thicker than two to four inches, and they are fastened with nails and/or threaded nuts and bolts. Cargo, such as wooden barrels, is another example of debris that will look peculiar for this day and age, thus it is safe to assume it might be part of a shipwreck.
“Take only pictures, leave only footprints” is an appropriate adage for those seeking to explore coastal shipwreck sites.
In Michigan, shipwrecks principally belong to the State—the public, also known as “the commons”—as they represent our collective culture and history. Michigan law protects them. Selective recovery and conservation is for trained professionals to consider.
Moreover, work conducted by archeologists and historians with the Manitou Underwater Preserve and the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore have documented remarkable levels of preservation of buried coastal artifacts and shipwreck remains, offering important archeological information.
So if you see something of interest on the beach, you should photograph it and the location where you found it, then report it. (See below, in the footnote, for the proper way to report.) Some materials are swept away and may not be accessible days or even just hours later, so getting as much documentation as possible before historic cultural materials are destroyed or carried off is important to preserving our local maritime legacy and solving some of the mysteries of the “ghost fleet of the Great Lakes.” Both the State of Michigan and the National Lakeshore keep databases to try to preserve as much as possible.
Like any archeological site, context is important, so relocating an item can be negatively impactful. Even taking “one little thing” results in what preservationists call “tragedy of the commons”—if hundreds of people each take one small thing, what will be left for others to enjoy and learn from?
Beachcombing Arcadia to Frankfort
Fortunately, because of people who have “left only footprints,” there are many shipwrecks that can be visited along our beaches.
Though the coast is dynamic—with historic materials appearing and disappearing with each storm event—there are some larger shipwreck remains in the area which can usually be viewed.* For example, just north of the Frankfort public beach is the centerboard and centerboard trunk to a wooden schooner; the swing centerboard would be raised up into the watertight trunk, so that the sailing vessel could enter shallow Great Lakes ports, and then it would be lowered in deep water to allow the ship to sail windward. Visible are the sturdy white oak planks which have turned black with time. The large wrought iron centerboard pin and plank fasteners can also be seen, including hatchet marks where someone attempted to remove it. It is not yet known from precisely which vessel these parts hail, as many ships of this type have wrecked in the vicinity.
Another example is where Watervale Road ends at Lake Michigan, south to nearly where the Arcadia bluff begins; there, the side of the 176-foot, three-masted schooner Marinette can be seen. The Marinette was one of three ships that wrecked along the beach there during a fall storm in November 1886, the others being the schooner Menekaunee and steamer Pursue.
There was one survivor from the Marinette, ironically a man who had just signed aboard the ship as a deckhand for his first passage; meanwhile, the captain, female cook, her 13-year-old daughter, and three crewmen were lost. The Menekaunee fared worse, with seven lost and only the ship’s dog surviving the wreck, then dying in the arms of a Point Betsie Lifesaving serviceman shortly after being discovered on the beach. And after a miles-long trek in soaking wet clothes through snow and driving winds, five survivors from the Pursue—two of whom succumbed to exposure and were being carried by shipmates—found shelter at the cabin of Billy Stubbs.
Coastal shipwrecks often closely involve the people and communities where they occurred—the village of Empire being named for a vessel ashore there in 1865, for instance; residents in Glen Arbor receiving the Congressional Lifesaving Medal for their undaunted aid to the stricken schooner W.B. Phelps in 1879; townspeople in Frankfort and Elberta searching for survivors and recovering those lost to their families when the steamer Columbia sank offshore in 1881. Just a year before, they had toiled alongside Life Saving servicemen in the heroic rescue of crew aboard the J.H. Hartzel, wrecked on the Elberta beach in October 1880.
“This rescue was largely accomplished by the aide of the people from the town,” wrote the Lifesaving Station captain in the official log for that event. “For never was public recognition due to service in humane cause more justly deserved than in this instance.”
With our coastal shipwreck resources now becoming exposed and at risk, we need “the people of the town” to help preserve our maritime heritage and the world left to our care.
Jed Jaworski is a Benzie County-based maritime historian and former curator with the Michigan Maritime Museum. Persons finding shipwreck remains should report them to Wayne Lusardi, the state maritime archeologist, at 989-884-6207 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Or if in the Sleeping Bear Dunes area, report to the National Lakeshore’s chief ranger at 231-326-4700.
*Editor’s Note: With record high water levels compounding the already dangerous nature of Lake Michigan beaches during this fall-to-winter season change, caution is advised, even in calm weather. Additionally, private property rights may have to be considered when the area allowed for public access between the water’s edge and the high water datum may only be inches wide. For more on property rights during this age of high water levels, see Linda Alice Dewey’s coverage in The Betsie Current archives online.