Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum

Aug/15/2011 6 Malia Lane

While I was staying at Tahquamenon State Park, I knew I wanted to see the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point, only about 14 miles from Rivermouth Campground.  I had become fascinated with what I’d seen about shipwrecks’ role in shaping Michigan’s history and the deeply personal effect they’ve had on local communities.

Whitefish Point is in an area known as the “Graveyard of Ships” along a stretch of shoreline called the “Shipwreck Coast.”  I had long known about one of the most famous losses – the Edmund Fitzgerald.  The Gordon Lightfoot tribute song came out  a year after the ship sank in November, 1975.  I was 25 years old and had never known anything much about shipwrecks, but I remember being deeply moved by that song.

After getting your tickets, but before you go into the main museum, though, I recommend you step inside the “Shipwreck Theater” to see the brief movie about the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.  It sets the stage nicely for the artifacts and info you see in the museum as it tells of “Big Fitz” – the “ship built of steel to carry steel that was no match for the wicked waves of Lake Superior.”

July 4, 1995 – The Edmund Fitzgerald’s 195 pound bell was brought up 535 feet from the bottom of Lake Superior and now hangs in this museum.    Each year it is rung 29 times – once for each member of the crew and one time for all mariners who have lost their lives on the Great Lakes.  When the movie showed this part, I was glad it was dark in there because I couldn’t keep the tears from falling down my cheeks.

It’s still a fascinating and controversial subject today – maybe because there are still so many questions remaining even now about why this great ship was lost only 17 miles from the safety of Whitefish Bay.  The museum’s brochure says “Of the 6,000 ships lost on the Great Lakes, the Edmund Fitzgerald remains the most famous and mysterious.”

November 9, 1975 – Underway on its 40th voyage, the Edmund Fitzgerald had set records for carrying the heaviest of loads.  She left Superior, Wisconsin fully loaded with iron ore and ran into an unexpectedly fierce winter storm. The next afternoon, Captain McSorley reported some minor damage and headed to the shelter and safety of Whitefish Bay.

Another freighter, the Anderson, radioed Captain McSorley that they had just been hit by three towering waves that were headed in the Fitzgerald’s direction.  At 7:10 pm, the captain replied, “We are holding our own.”  That was the last human sound ever heard from the Fitzgerald.

The next day, debris and life rafts were sighted, but to this day there have never been any sign of survivors or human remains recovered.

May, 1976 – The wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald was located, photographed and has been studied, but controversy still remains about whether it broke in two before sinking or broke apart when it hit the bottom of the lake.  Even after an official Coast Guard report concluded that a faulty hatch closure was to blame, the debate continues.

I found this nicely done YouTube video tribute to the Edmund Fitzgerald – accompanied by the Gordon Lightfoot song with news coverage of the christening, voyages, its loss and scenes of the wreckage.

I also thought it was interesting that when Gordon Lightfoot was asked what he thought his most significant contribution to music was, he said it was this song, which he often refers to as “The Wreck.”

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they called ‘Gitche Gumee’
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
When the skies of November turn gloomy
With a load of iron ore twenty-six thousand tons more
Than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty.
That good ship and crew was a bone to be chewed
When the gales of November came early….

But even though the Edmund Fitzgerald was the main attraction, there’s so much more to the museum.  As I wandered around, I spoke to Marty, who says she is the “show girl” who runs the movie at the Shipwreck Theater.  She said the intent of the museum was to “touch all the senses.”  Mission accomplished, Marty!

As I walked into and around the museum, I’d say they certainly succeeded in that quest.  The sights, the sounds, the reverent feel of the place most definitely touched me in every way.

 The artifacts – the remains of great ships reduced to rubble and the sorrow of the mourners left behind…

Here you’re taken into the undersea world of divers exploring shipwrecks.

I imagined the isolated lives of the lightkeepers and marveled at what all their duties entailed besides keeping that all-important light lit and shining across deceptively beautiful Lake Superior.

So I most definitely recommend making this a stop when you’re in this area.   Automated lights have taken the place of the live-in lightkeeper, and today’s technology has reduced the incidents of shipwrecks, so don’t miss the chance to be moved by and learn from this episode of Michigan history that has helped shape this state of Great Lakes.

More to come on the lighthouse and the amazing shoreline here…