This is the beach at Whitefish Point in the eastern section of Michigan’s upper peninsula. The beach is very fine sand. The large numbers of beach stones are all pounded into smooth shapes by the wild Lake Superior. They look as if they’d spent months in a rock polisher right down to the cycle with the finest grit. The deer flies, though, are not quite so tamed. So, this is the beach. Standing there in the surf, even on a hot sunny day, you know for sure that this is Michigan’s Shipwreck Coast. You can imagine a dark night, in a fierce storm, when dedicated surfmen headed out in wooden boats to try to rescue those in peril of shipwreck. Many of them lost their lives trying to save others.
The Whitefish Point LIght station is the oldest active lighthouse on Lake Superior. The light was built in 1861 on orders from President Lincoln. The original keepers quarters have been fully restored and are open for tours.
Lake Superior has earned its reputation as the most treacherous of the Great Lakes. Michiganders knew that even before the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald on November 10, 1975. All 29 crew members died. Gordon Lightfoot sung the new shipwreck story, but it was an old story, repeated many times before.
The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum tells the shipwreck stories well. As you enter the small museum, you are reminded of the coast’s first explorers and of the early French voyageurs.
The scenes shift quickly to an assortment of modern day and almost-modern day shipwrecks. There are many recovered artifacts. There are scenes showing the exploration of the shipwrecks. But the centerpiece of the museum is the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald.
The museum’s small theater runs a short film on the sinking and on the 1995 joint effort of the Canadian Navy (the ship sunk in Canadian waters), the National Geographic Society, and the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum’s Historical Society to recover the Edmund Fitzgerald’s bell to honor those who died in that year’s “gales of November.” The bell was raised. In its place, another bell was attached to the wreck. The new one bears the engraved names of the 29 crewmen who died and whose bodies were never recovered.
The original ship’s bell is on display at the museum. It is a memorial to the ship’s crew. But it is also a reminder that Lake Superior has been swallowing up shiploads of people for a long long time. The museum’s estimate is that more than 30,000 people have died in Lake Superior shipwrecks.
Listen to Lightfoot’s song. It’s a good one. This video includes footage from the newscasts of the day and haunting images from dives on the wreck.