Situated on the rocky shores of the wild Lake Superior, Whitefish Point has long been considered the Graveyard of the Great Lakes. It’s one reason why the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum was established there.
This museum tells the story of maritime history in Michigan and pays homage to the tragedies that happened to many ships in the Great Lakes. For years, people have been drawn to the mysterious waters of the Great Lakes and have been haunted by the stories of the shipwrecks that lie below.
As a result, the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point has become a popular attraction among local residents and travelers alike.
Discover the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point
The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point is a famous tourist attraction in the state of Michigan. It’s located almost as far north in the state as anyone can go — on Lake Superior in the northeastern corner of the Upper Peninsula on the M-123 Tahquamenon Scenic Byway north of Paradise Michigan.
Situated on the Shipwreck Coast, this museum provides an immersive experience in which visitors can begin to understand the dangers of the waters that lie just before them. Each summer, more than 75,000 people arrive in order to learn more about the most famous shipwrecks in the Great Lakes.
The History of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum
In 1978, just three years after the tragic sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald, the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society was established by a concerned group of local residents, including experienced divers and dedicated educators.
Their goal was to begin exploring the shipwrecks off the coast of Whitefish Bay and to learn more about the waters of Lake Superior. As the group learned more about the shipwrecks, they knew that they needed to share the information and findings with the community at large.
After collecting artifacts and creating a small exhibit about the shipwrecks, the group officially open the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum in 1985. During their first six weeks of operation, more than 12,000 visited the museum to learn about the shipwrecks in the depths of the lake.
An Important Mission
The Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society still exists today. Its mission is three-fold, working to:
- Promote the lawful exploration of shipwrecks, ensuring that all wrecks are explored in a way that’s both responsible and respectful. The members believe that the purpose of exploring shipwrecks is to preserve history.
- Promote educational outreach in the local community about Michigan’s maritime history. The group works closely with Lake Superior State University to conduct maritime research and create interpretive and interactive programming for others in the community.
- Preserve and protect the historical sites along the shores of Whitefish Bay, including the 19th-century Whitefish Point Light Station.
The work of the historical society has been fundamental in preserving the shipwrecks of the Great Lakes. Its research has helped raise awareness about these wrecks while simultaneously allowing efforts to make traveling on the Great Lakes safer for all involved in the maritime industry.
As a result of this hard work and dedication, more than 75,000 people visit the museum each summer.
“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.”Bruce Lynn, Operations Manager
Visiting the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum
The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum is a seasonal attraction that provides a multifaceted experience for visitors of all ages. It’s open to visitors from early May until the end of October each year. When it’s open, it has daily hours from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Admission is $14 for adults, $10 for children between the ages of 6 and 17, and free for children under 5. Purchasing a ticket to tour the museum includes entrance to several different attractions.
Shipwreck Museum Gallery
The heart of the museum is located in the Shipwreck Museum Gallery. This haunting exhibit allows visitors to experience what it’s like below the rocky waves of Lake Superior.
In this gallery are hundreds of artifacts that are preserved and on display, along with vital information about the stories of the ships and sailors who perished in the waters.
Perhaps one of the most notable and moving artifacts is the bell of the Edmund Fitzgerald, which is considered to be one of the most tragic shipwrecks of modern times. The bell is still used during Edmund Fitzgerald anniversary memorial services to honor the lost crew.
Outside of the museum and closer to the shores of Lake Superior, visitors can tour the Lightkeepers Quarters, which was first built in 1861.
“I love the Lighthouse Keeper’s Quarters. 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.”Bruce Lynn, Operations Manager
On display in the quarters are artifacts, representations of period furniture, and stories of what life was like for those who operated the lighthouse during the 19th and 20th centuries.
Staying overnight in the quarters provides another way visitors can immerse themselves in the lighthouse-living experience.
1923 Surfboat House
Another historic site operated by the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum is the 1923 Surfboat House. In this house, visitors can learn more about the search and rescue operations that took place from 1923 until 1951.
There’s a replica of a surfboat inside the house, as well as information about the people who risked their lives to save others on this dangerous stretch of coastline.
1861 Whitefish Point Light Tower
The historic lighthouse on the shores of Lake Superior was first erected to aid the copper and iron traders in Michigan. Plans for a lighthouse at Whitefish Point were developed in 1847. 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 to endure gale-force winds, ice, and snow during the winter. In 1923, the Coast Guard 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. The lighthouse remains the oldest continuously working lighthouse in the United States — operating for over 150 years!
The house and tower designed in the 1860s are what visitors see today. It’s one of the most popular spots on the tour of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum and is an ideal photo opportunity.
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.
Exploring Whitefish Point
While most people come to the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum for an immersive and interactive history lesson, it’s also a place where you can discover the natural beauty of northern Michigan.
Your museum admission includes access to a barrier-free boardwalk along the Lake Superior Shoreline. From there, you can soak up the breathtaking views that surround the museum.
Visitors often find themselves enjoying a picnic lunch on the beach too. From there, you can see the Laurentian Mountains in the distance on a clear day. It’s easy to spend hours on this stretch of sand, particularly if you enjoy watching the shipping vessels go by.
If you do decide to walk along the white sands of the beach, avoid the sand dunes, which are a protected natural area.
Understanding the Tragedy of the Edmund Fitzgerald
One of the most well-known tragedies on Lake Superior is the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald on Nov. 10, 1975, just 17 miles north of Whitefish Point. The exact events surrounding the shipwreck are shrouded in mystery, which is why so many people are captivated by it.
“Does any one know where the love of God goesGordon Lightfoot, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, 1976
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.”
Sadly, the entire 29-member Fitzgerald crew died in the wreck, making it one of the most notable shipwrecks of the modern era.
In 1995, at the request of the surviving family members of the ship’s crew, the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society launched an expedition to recover the Edmund Fitzgerald’s iconic 200-pound bell. That bell is one of the most admired artifacts within the museum’s collection.
The Edmund Fitzgerald tragedy is one of over 240 wrecks between 1816 and 1975 at Whitefish Point alone. There have been tens of thousands throughout the Great Lakes. One storm, in November 1913, claimed over 20 ships in just four days.
Learning About Underwater Research Performed at the Museum
While the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society has managed to protect and preserve artifacts from many shipwrecks in the Great Lakes and successfully established a museum in honor of those wrecks, it doesn’t consider its job to be complete.
Today, members of the society actively work to continue conducting underwater research through exploratory expeditions. The society owns and operates a professional underwater research vessel known as the R.V. David Boyd.
The R.V. David Boyd
This 47-foot vessel is capable of completing dives up the 1,400 feet below the surface of Lake Superior. A crew of three seamen works with state-of-the-art technology to learn more about the Great Lakes and research the shipwrecks that have occurred along the Shipwreck Coast.
However, the vessel has been called into action on search and rescue missions as well. Its crew has played a pivotal role in helping those in peril on the waters of Lake Superior.
Frequently Asked Questions About the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum
How much time should you allocate for a visit to the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum?
If you plan to spend the day at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, make sure that you have at least two or three hours to explore and experience each exhibit.
How many shipwrecks are in Whitefish Point?
West from Whitefish Point, the 80-mile stretch of Upper Peninsula coastline earned the nickname Shipwreck Coast with good reason. There are more than 200 shipwrecks in the surrounding area.
Where is the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald?
Whitefish Point is the nearest location to the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. The tragic shipwreck, which occurred in 1975 and resulted in the deaths of the entire 29-person crew, took place about 17 miles north of Whitefish Point in the dark waters of Lake Superior.
Which of the Great Lakes has the most shipwrecks?
Whitefish Bay may be known as the Shipwreck Coast of Lake Superior, but the highest number of shipwrecks has actually occurred in Lake Erie. Ships are in more danger when traversing through those waters because it’s the shallowest of all the Great Lakes.
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.