Landlubbers Guide To Shoreline Shipwrecks
Michigan is blessed with shipwrecks, and a lot of them are either along the shoreline or so close to the surface you can snorkel to them. All of these landlubber’s wrecks make for great summer adventures. South Manitou Island in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore not only have a lot of wrecks but also lighthouses and maritime museums. We have the trail maps in our eshop that shipwreck hunters will need to find their piece of history.
The heart of Michigan’s shipwrecks is Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and we have them all covered in the second edition of The Trails of M-22 or our waterproof North & South Manitou Islands Trail Map. Both are available from our e-shop.
By Jim DuFresne
Some trails break out of the woods at a lake. Some climb a dune to a sweeping view. And many, more than you probably thought, lead to a shipwreck on a beach with a story.
Michigan’s maritime history is fascinating but not limited to old lighthouses or restored life-saving stations. Our state is blessed with accessible shipwrecks that don’t require an air tank or a wet suit to view only a pair of hiking boots, a paddle or a snorkel and a mask.
Michigan’s shoreline wrecks are constantly revolving depending on the wave action, shifting sand and Great Lake water levels. But high and dry for easy viewing is one of our newest wrecks, the Jennie and Annie. The 137-foot schooner, built in 1863, was rounding Sleeping Bear Point in November 1872 when gale-force winds pushed it into the shallows and reefs of Lake Michigan’s notorious Manitou Passage. The ship, its 10-member crew and a cargo of corn onboard were driven aground 9 miles south near Empire. Only three crew members survived.
Gone forever? Hardly. For the past two summers, a substantial piece of the hull has been visible on a beach in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.
To see the Jennie and Annie begin at the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail trailhead on Bar Lake Road near Voice Road. Hike the paved path west for a quarter-mile and continue on a social trail located where Voice Road curves into Lacore Road. Within a half-mile, you reach Lake Michigan and the shipwreck just to the south.
Here is my landlubber’s guide to other great Michigan shipwrecks. It’s up to you if you want to dip your toes into the water or not.
Portland: Besser Natural Area is a 135-acre preserve that forms the north end of the Rockport Recreation Area north of Alpena and includes remains of the town of Bell and this shipwreck. In 1877, the 150-foot-long schooner ran aground trying to reach the Bell wharf and was quickly torn apart during a fierce October storm. A 1.3-mile trail leads past are a few pieces of a Portland in the woods and then to the bilge and starboard side of the wreck that lies in six feet of water, 100 yards offshore Lake Huron. Parts of the stern and portside hull are in a pond nearby that was once part of the bay.
For a trail map click on Besser Natural Area.
City of Boston: Built in Cleveland in 1863, this 136-foot-long wooden steamer also featured a mast and a history of bad luck. In 1868 the City of Boston collided with another steamer and sank in the Straits of Mackinac. When the steamship was raised 125 feet two years later, it was the deepest salvage ever attempted in the Great Lakes at the time.
After being rebuilt in Cleveland, the ship returned to service as a stream barge only to finally meet its end on Nov. 4, 1873, during a storm with blinding snow. The City of Boston was hauling flour and corn when it ran aground on a sand bar just off Green Point Dunes Nature Preserve. The raging surf quickly broke the hull, and the ship was abandoned by its crew.
The steamship remains are located west of the preserve’s beach access stairway, 150 to 200 feet from shore, depending on the water levels. It’s angled in 7 to 8 feet of water with its stern buried in the sand bar and its bow occasionally less than 4 feet below the lake’s surface. It’s easy snorkeling, or you can see an outline of the bow in clear waters of Lake Michigan from the preserve’s second observation deck. For a trail map click on Green Point Dunes Nature Preserve.
James McBride: Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is a graveyard for shipwrecks, including this 121-foot brig built in 1848 and lost in October 1857. A November storm in 2014 washed up a section of the James McBride that was 43-feet long, making it the largest shipwreck ever to appear on the park’s shoreline. To see it, hike the Dunes Trail, a 2-mile trek from the Dune Climb to Lake Michigan, and then head south 300 yards along the shoreline. For a track map click on the Dunes Trail .
Francisco Morazan: On Nov. 27, 1960, this Liberian freighter departed Chicago and was bound for Holland with 940 tons of cargo, a crew of 13, its captain and his pregnant wife. The next day the ship ran into 40-mile-per-hour winds, snow and fog that made for a virtual whiteout. The captain thought he was rounding Beaver Island, more than 100 miles away, when he ran aground on the south side of South Manitou Island.
A Coast Guard Cutter and helicopter rescued the 15 persons, but the wreck was left behind to be forever battered by Lake Michigan. Today it’s the most popular destination for campers on the island. From the Weather Station Campground, hike west along the beach, and within a half-mile, you’ll be 200 yards across from what’s left of the freighter. The wreck is also popular with kayakers who bring their boats over on the ferry.
Three Brothers: Another South Manitou Island wreck. Built in 1888, this 162-foot “lumber hooker” – designed to carry timber on its deck and in its hold – departed Boyne City on Sept. 27, 1911, with a full load and headed south for Chicago when it entered Lake Michigan. A storm hit later that day and the ship began to take on water. The captain deliberately beached his vessel at South Manitou, knowing there was a U.S. Life-Saving Station nearby that could rescue his crew.
Despite being only 30 yards from shore, the Three Brothers remained hidden under Lake Michigan for 85 years until the sand around it was swept away in an underwater landslide in early 1996. Parts of the boat are less than six feet under the surface at Sandy Point and have become a popular spot for snorkelers swimming from shore.
American Union: This 186-foot, three-masted schooner was one of the largest sailing ships to work the Great Lakes when it was launched in 1862. American Union’s size ultimately led to its demise when it encountered a fatal storm in 1894 that grounded at Thompson’s Harbor State Park south in Rogers City. The crew was saved, and today the wreckage rests a quarter mile from shore in 10 feet of crystal, clear Lake Huron water. The remains of the ship’s hull offer viewing opportunities for snorkelers and kayakers. For a trail map click on Thompson’s Harbor State Park.
AuSable Reef Wrecks: From Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore’s Hurricane River Campground, you can head east on the Lakeshore Trail and, in 1.5 miles, pass several wrecks and then end up at the AuSable Light Station built to protect the ships. The first wreck, the Mary Jarecki, lies just outside the campground. The wooden bulk freighter was carrying iron ore and grounded on the AuSable Reef in July 1883. When other boats couldn’t tow her off, the ship was left to be battered by Lake Superior.
Her remains are just offshore in Lake Superior and are challenging to see if there is a chop on the lake surface. But hike further down the trail to see timbers and ironwork of two wrecks half-buried in the sand. The first is the Sitka, a wooden freighter grounded in 1904 and broke in half. The second is the Gale Staples, another wooden freighter built in 1881 and was loaded with coal when she beached herself on the sandy reef in 1918.
Bermuda: Murray Bay on Grand Island Recreation Area has a beautiful beach, a historical display devoted to an early settlement, and the Stone Quarry Ranger Station. But for many visitors, the most intriguing aspect of the bay is this shipwreck. The wooden schooner was loaded with 488 tons of iron ore when it left Marquette in 1870 and sank in Grand Harbor just off Munising during a fierce storm. In 1884, a Canadian salvage company raised the ship, removed its cargo, and re-sank it inside Murray Bay.
The Bermuda lies only 10 feet below the surface and in the clear, protective waters of the bay. You can snorkel around it, but this is Lake Superior; a wet suit is advisable. Most visitors paddle out to it. You can glide right over it and view an entire 19th century ship from the seat of your 20th century kayak.
America: On June 6, 1928, this tourist ship was loaded with crates of fresh fruit and 48 passengers when she left a resort on Isle Royale National Park‘sWashington Island and, within a half-mile, struck a reef. She sank within sight of the horrified hotel employees and other guests back at the dock.
No deaths occurred, but bushels of fresh fruit washed ashore for weeks after the mishap. Even more unusual the ship sank in a vertical position, and one end lies less than three feet from the surface of Lake Superior. The curious can rent a canoe in Windigo and paddle out of Washington Harbor into the North Gap, where a buoy marks the ship’s location. Lake Superior is so clear it’s amazing how much you can see from the seat of a canoe.