The wreck of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald during the night of November 10, 1975, just off Whitefish Point, is probably Lake Superior’s best known and most mysterious shipwreck. However, as a trip to the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at the Point reveals, it is one of over 240 wrecks between 1816 and 1975 at Whitefish Point alone, and of tens of thousands throughout the Great Lakes. One storm, in November 1913, claimed over 20 ships in just four days.
The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum provides a fascinating chronology of the more significant wrecks in a fascinating, absorbing, and respectful setting. It is located at the tip of Whitefish Point on M-123 north from Paradise, Michigan.
“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 true was a bone to be chewed
when the “Gales of November” came early.”
– Gordon Lightfoot, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, 1976
About the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point
Whitefish Point Lighthouse stands isolated at the foot of Lake Superior–miles from any large city. The lighthouse now houses the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum (GLSM), and it remains the oldest continuously working lighthouse in the United States—operating for over 150 years!
“People visit Whitefish Point and the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, including the lighthouse, the shipwreck exhibits (primarily the Edmund Fitzgerald exhibit), the beauty of Whitefish Point, and the history of the Life Saving Service,” says Bruce Lynn, Operations Manager.
Plans for a lighthouse at Whitefish Point developed in 1847 and the first lighthouse, built of stone, at the point lit up in 1849. Only about 20 years later, engineers redesigned the structure using iron and an improved support system so the light tower could endure the gale force winds, ice, and snow during the winter. The house and tower designed in the 1860s are what visitors see today. In 1923, the US Coast Guard (USCG) built a life-saving station at Whitefish Point and continues to operate and maintain the lighthouse. In 1983, the Coast Guard and Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society teamed up to restore the grounds and opened it to the public in 1987.
Restoration of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point
The GLSM continues restoring buildings allowing visitors to immerse themselves in the experience of living and working at the lighthouse. The restoration of the lightkeepers house in the 1920s period remains a favorite of many visitors. Staying overnight in the USCG Quarters provides another way visitors can immerse in the lighthouse living experience.
“I love the Lighthouse Keeper’s Quarters,” Lynn says. “This restored structure allows people to imagine what it might have been like to live at such a remote light-station on the Great Lakes.”
Restoration of the light tower began a few years ago, and Lynn hopes to complete it this summer. Last summer, visitors could climb the light tower. The view was amazing and definitely worth the few extra bucks–after all the money paid to climb the tower goes directly toward the restoration of it. Lynn adds that the tower will remain accessible to visitors even after the restoration.
“The new exhibits tell the stories of the Daniel J. Morrell (Lake Huron, 1966) and the Carl D. Bradley (Lake Michigan, 1958), both of which were very dramatic shipwrecks and had survivors (only one survivor on the Morrell) to relate what actually happened.”
The stories of these ships will surely add to the depth of knowledge in the museum, which covers Native American history of the area to early scuba diving and the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.
Visit the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point
Start your visit with a viewing of the 20-minute Discovery Channel film “Mystery of The Edmund Fitzgerald,” which perfectly prepares you to view the rest of the museum mindful of the men and their families whose tragic losses are depicted in the stunning exhibits of the main Shipwreck Museum Building. Here, the SS Edmund Fitzgerald’s ship’s bell is displayed, along with models of it and other major ships lost in the Great Lakes. Artifacts from each wreck are displayed alongside news stories and personal accounts from the people involved; towering over the entire display is a massive second-order Fresnel lens from the White Shoal lighthouse.
Elsewhere on the museum’s large grounds is the 1861 Lightkeeper’s Quarters, which shows what life was like for the keepers of the Whitefish Point Light during its 150-year history. This light is still an active United States Coast Guard light and is the oldest continually operating light on Lake Superior. Access to the modern-day light itself is not allowed due to the high voltages used to power it, but you can peek up the wrought-iron spiral staircase that keepers have used for almost 150 years to tend the light.
The history of surfboat rescues on the Lakes and of the United States Lifesaving Service is depicted in the 1923 Surfboat House, and there is an excellent gift store, which provides much-needed funds to maintain and improve the museum exhibits. You can round off your visit by stretching your legs on the sandy beach, gazing over the waters that are the commercial heart of the Great Lakes region but which have claimed so many lives.
The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point is open from May 1 – October 31 and admission, donation, and upcoming event information are available on their website. Many family rates and discounts are available, and there are plenty of group and educational programs available, including an overnight experience program for smaller groups.
“Does any one know where the love of God goes
when the waves turn the minutes to hours?
The searchers all say they’d have made Whitefish Bay
if they’d put fifteen more miles behind ‘er.
They might have split up or they might have capsized;
they may have broke deep and took water.
And all that remains is the faces and the names
of the wives and the sons and the daughters.”
– Gordon Lightfoot, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, 1976
It’s easy to spend an entire day at Whitefish Point whether you explore the museum, search for agates on the beach, or just watch the freighters go by. Just be careful though – even in the middle of July, Lake Superior’s water is ice cold!
Thanks to Krissy Schwab and Anthony Rodgers for contributing to this article.