Ship In A Storm

7 Famous Michigan Shipwrecks in November

Throughout the course of maritime history, there have been a great many Michigan shipwrecks in November.

As the cold winds arrive in early November, the Great Lakes often transform into more daunting bodies of water. The water temperature drops quickly, and the lakes transform into shades of deep blue and gray, creating an ominous atmosphere — particularly for the ships that navigate the waves daily.

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they call ‘gitche gumee’
Superior, they said, never gives up her dead
When the gales of November come early

Gordon Lightfoot, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald song

If you’ve ever walked out onto a pier in one of Michigan’s Great Lakes and felt the pounding of the waves and heard the crash as they break against rock and steel, you can imagine what it might be like to withstand a storm at sea.

The size and depth of the Great Lakes make them more like inland seas, allowing large freighters to make their way from the Atlantic Ocean all the way to Chicago by water. But a large ship doesn’t guarantee a safe crossing on the Great Lakes.

Alpena Shipwreck Tours - Alpena, Michigan - Lake Huron
Alpena Shipwreck Tours | photo via Alpena Shipwreck Tours

Almost every elementary school child in Michigan knows of the tragedy immortalized by Gordon Lightfoot’s song, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. In 1975, the SS Edmund Fitzgerald sank a mere 10-15 miles off the coast of Whitefish Point in the Upper Peninsula with all 29 crew members lost.

It remains the most notorious shipwreck due to the fact that there was no distress call from the captain or crew. The Fitzgerald had also been running parallel with another freighter since leaving Wisconsin, and the Anderson didn’t sink.

November is the most feared month for shipwrecks due to the seasonal weather changes. Cold northern air begins to blow down from Canada and crosses the warmer lake water. The large expanse of water allows severe weather to build unchecked, which can be unpredictable and have disastrous consequences for ships that can’t find safe harbor.

Shipwrecks in the Great Lakes

There are an estimated 6,000 shipwrecks on the Great Lakes.

The earliest known shipwreck in the Great Lakes occurred in 1679 when Le Griffon set sail with a load of furs. It passed through the Straits of Mackinac and was never heard from again.

The oldest ship to be discovered is the HMS Ontario, a British warship that was sunk in Lake Ontario in 1780, was found in 2008. The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point in the Upper Peninsula has artifacts and information about the preservation and restoration of many wreck sites.

In August 2016, the second oldest wreck was discovered in Lake Ontario – the Washington, a sloop sunk in 1803. It is the oldest commercial ship to be found and the only known sloop to be used on Lakes Erie and Ontario. Since there are no known drawings of the Washington, the discovery will shed more light on shipping on the Great Lakes between the American Revolution and the War of 1812.

November Shipwrecks on Lake Huron

Daniel J. Morrell | November 1966

The sinking of the Daniel J. Morrell was one of the most devastating Great Lakes shipwrecks, yet it’s usually not the first one that people think of when they begin their stories of November shipwrecks. The Daniel J. Morrell lost 28 crew members when it sank in 1966 in the waters of Lake Huron.

Captain Arthur Crawley was journeying from New York to Michigan on Nov. 29, 1966, when he encountered a storm on Lake Huron. He was not a captain who was known for braving the rough waters, so it wasn’t like him to be out on such a tumultuous day.

The Morrell could not withstand the winds of the storm, which eventually ripped the ship into two pieces. While the captain and a few crew members made it aboard a life raft initially, that raft also capsized, and only one crew member survived that ordeal.

Uss Lexington (Cv-2) - Lake Erie - November Shipwrecks
USS Lexington (CV-2) | photo via kitchener.lord

Lake Erie Shipwrecks That Occurred in November

Lexington | November 1846

The Lexington was a grand wooden schooner with two masts that was built sometime between 1835 and 1836. It would sail for a decade before it met its untimely demise on the waters of Lake Erie on a cold November day.

On Nov. 19, 1846, the Lexington was located about 4 miles off the coast of Point Mouille when it was caught in the depths of a storm. The storm eventually sank the ship, which had a crew of 13 men — all of whom perished that day.

In addition to the crew, the ship was carrying more than 100 barrels of whiskey, many of which washed ashore in the days following the sinking. Rumor has it that the ship also carried a safe filled with gold, though no one has been able to recover the sunken treasure.

Lake Michigan Shipwrecks in November

SS Appomattox | November 1905

Hailed in the early days of the 20th century as a maritime marvel, the SS Appomattox was considered one of the largest wooden ships on the Great Lakes. Spanning more than 300 feet in length, this grand beauty would gracefully sail along the waters of the Great Lakes carting cargo to and from various ports.

As it was traveling along the coast of Wisconsin on Nov. 2, 1905, the ship was swept up by smog, making it impossible for the crew to navigate. The ship inadvertently ran aground, and it eventually had to be abandoned.

There was no loss of life during this shipwreck, but the remains of the ship still rest below the waters of Lake Michigan.

Rouse Simmons | November 1912

Built in 1868, the Rouse Simmons schooner was a legendary ship in the Great Lakes commercial shipping industry. The ship had lived a long and storied life, but as a result, it also was not in the best condition to continue carrying cargo between Michigan and Chicago Illinois.

On Nov. 22, 1912, the Rouse Simmons was carrying a large load of Christmas trees across Lake Michigan to deliver them in time for the upcoming holiday season. Tragically, a November gale swept in and sunk the ship in the icy waters of Lake Michigan.

No crew members survived the wreck, and the Christmas trees sadly washed ashore over the days and weeks that followed the wreck.

The wreckage was undiscovered for many years until it was accidentally found in 1971. Sunk into mud and preserved by the cold water, the ship was in relatively good condition at the time.

SS Carl D. Bradley | November 1958

Known as the “Queen of the Great Lakes,” the SS Carl D. Bradley was the largest Great Lakes freighter of its kind when it was built in 1927. While it reigned supreme for many years, it would sadly sink to the icy depths of Lake Michigan on a cold November day in 1958.

It seemed that the ship would withstand the tests and trials of time, particularly after it survived a collision in 1957 and ran aground several times in 1958. However, by November 1958, the ship’s luck had run out.

It had been made of steel, which ended up not being the best material for the ship that would spend decades sailing on the water. It endured structural damage during a storm in November, causing the ship to sink and killing 33 of the 35 total crew members.

S.s. Edmund Fitzgerald
S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald | photo via @dawnofmantispodcast

November Shipwrecks on Lake Superior

Edmund Fitzgerald | November 1975

The wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald is not only the most famous of the Michigan shipwrecks in November but also, perhaps, the most notorious shipwreck in the state. In fact, many know of the sinking because of the ever-popular Gordon Lightfoot song that was composed just a year after its sinking.

The Edmund Fitzgerald was heralded as the largest freighter ship of its kind when it was built in 1958, and it retained that title for its two decades of service.

Surviving several collisions, it was thought that it was one of the strongest and most durable ships to sail on the Great Lakes, but it proved to be no match for the storm it encountered on Nov. 10, 1975. The ship sank during the storm without ever sending a distress signal, taking the lives of all 29 crew members.

Considered one of the worst shipping disasters on the Great Lakes and one of the most recent shipwrecks in Michigan history, the tragedy of the Edmund Fitzgerald has become a Michigan legend in its own right. To this day, anniversary memorial services are held in remembrance of the lost crew.

SS Samuel Mather | November 1981

The SS Samuel Mather wreck is one of the most recent shipwrecks in Lake Superior, having occurred in November 1981 about 20 miles off the coast of Whitefish Bay. Known as the Graveyard of the Great Lakes, the conditions in this part of Lake Superior are known to be treacherous.

On this day, the fog was particularly bad, and the Mather collided with another ship — the Brazil. Fortunately, all of the Mather’s crew was saved because they were able to board the Brazil in the aftermath of the wreck.

Navigational Chart - 13 Things You Didn’t Know About The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald, What You Need To Know About The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald On November 10, 1975
Navigational Chart | photo via @red.handed

Fascinating Facts About Michigan Shipwrecks

The idea of a ship sinking below the icy cold waters of the world’s most powerful lakes is haunting, but some of these fascinating facts simply can’t be ignored. Here are a few interesting tidbits about Michigan shipwrecks:

  • Approximately 1,500 ships have slipped below the waves and sunk to the deep depths of Michigan’s waters.
  • The oldest known shipwreck in Michigan is the Le Griffon, which is believed to have sunk in Lake Michigan in 1679.
  • Michigan’s shipwrecks are protected as publicly-owned resources. They are protected in 12 underwater preserves in order for divers and historians to gather information and complete research.
  • Most shipwrecks lying at the bottom of the Great Lakes have been well-preserved because of the fresh water and cold temperatures.
  • November has long been considered the most treacherous time to traverse the Great Lakes because of the unpredictable nature of the weather at this time of year and the icy northern winds that can unexpectedly sweep down from Canada.
  • The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point in the Upper Peninsula has artifacts and information about the preservation and restoration of many wreck sites.
Ss Edmund Fitzgerald
SS Edmund Fitzgerald | photo via @anothermomentinhistory

Exploring Michigan Shipwrecks in November for Yourself

Given that shipwrecks are considered public lands, there are many opportunities for people to view and experience these shipwrecks for themselves. The cold fresh waters of the Great Lakes help preserve even wooden ships, but the depths make diving to many wrecks dangerous for even the most skilled divers.

However, there are a number of shipwrecks that can be safely explored by diving at designated underwater preserves. You too can sink below the surface and see what the lakes won’t give up. But if the thought of visiting one of these underwater graveyards in person isn’t your thing, you can also explore some preserves on a glass-bottom boat tour.

Whether you want to go snorkeling above the waters where you can see shipwrecks in Michigan, or you would prefer to take a glass-bottomed boat shipwreck tour, you will find that many tour companies will take you on Michigan shipwreck excursions:

  • Glass Bottom Shipwreck Tours in Munising — This two-hour glass bottom boat tour in Munising will take you on a journey onto Lake Superior to see two shipwrecks — the Bermuda, which sank in 1870, and the Herman H. Hettler, which sank in 1926.
  • Alpena Shipwreck Tours — This two-hour tour embarks onto Thunder Bay, where there are plenty of shipwrecks to discover. This tour company works in partnership with the Friends of Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary.
  • Nautical North Family Adventures — This locally owned company provides glass bottom boat tours of at least three shipwrecks that occurred in Lake Huron.

The tragic tales of shipwrecks in Michigan extend far beyond the month of November. As you travel throughout Michigan and enjoy the shores of the Great Lakes, take some time to learn more about the history of the most famous shipwrecks in Michigan.

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2 Comments

  1. In the beginning of your article, you stated that the Edmund Fitzgerald was the largest freighter sailing on the lakes. That is not correct. The largest ship sailing at the time of her sinking was the Stewart J. Cort, a 1000 foot freighter that entered service in 1972.
    Thank you for your time

    1. Thank you for catching that detail – the Fitzgerald was the largest freighter when it first hit the waters in 1958, and retained that title for many years, but as you stated, it was no longer the largest ship sailing at the time of its sinking.

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