Whether for carrying goods, commercial and leisure fishing, providing essential transportation links, or for simple pleasure tourism, ships have been traversing the waters of the Great Lakes for hundreds of years.
As the second-largest of the Great Lakes by volume and third-largest by surface area, there are believed to be at least 1,500 shipwrecks at the bottom of Lake Michigan.
Unlike the other Great Lakes, Lake Michigan is the only one that sits entirely inside the borders of the United States. So, the Lake Michigan shipwrecks are a treasure trove filled with information and fascinating stories for anyone interested in American history.
While there are far too many to catalog them all in one article, we’re going to delve into some of the most famous of all the shipwrecks in Lake Michigan.
How Many Shipwrecks in Lake Michigan Are There?
There are at least 1,500 shipwrecks in Lake Michigan. Since the early 1800’s numerous ships have been lost in vicious storms, had accidents or collisions in thick fog, or sunk for many other reasons.
However, although a lot of underwater exploration has taken place, the true answer to “How many ships have sunk in Lake Michigan?” could be even higher.
After all, some ships have been salvaged over the years, and other, perhaps smaller vessels, may have disappeared unknown into the sands and remain to be discovered.
New wrecks are being found lost in Lake Michigan every year, often by historians searching for different ships altogether!
The best way for shipwreck explorers to look at all the known wrecks is to check out a Lake Michigan shipwrecks map.
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However, because Lake Michigan is shared by the states of Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan, you’ll find that the different states have their own maps covering ships lost in their waters.
You also might like to investigate the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum operated by the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society or the Wisconsin Maritime Museum if you’re in the area.
Michigan has an interactive shipwreck story map and web app, which you can find at Michigan.gov/ExploreShipwrecks.
These valuable resources catalog the state waters of Lake Michigan and Lake Superior, Lake Huron, and Lake Erie.
Wisconsin shipwrecks has maps of ships lost in lower, mid and upper Lake Michigan on the shores of their state. Information covering Lake Superior and wrecks found in the inland waterways is also available.
There’s also an excellent map of “Lake Michigan, graveyard of the Great Lakes” found in the University of Wisconsin Library.
Illinois is at the south of Lake Michigan and, like Indiana, has a much smaller coastline and fewer wrecks than Michigan or Wisconsin.
The University of Illinois maintains records of the wrecks that you can find in this state.
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The Indiana Department of Natural Resources has created an interactive website to provide information about the historical shipwrecks lost in its waters of Lake Michigan.
What Is the Most Famous Shipwreck in Lake Michigan?
The paddle steamer Lady Elgin must be the most famous wreck in Lake Michigan.
Sadly this wooden-hulled steamship is well known mainly due to the more than 300 people who lost their lives when she sank in the early hours of the 8th September 1860 after a collision ten miles from shore with the schooner Augusta.
The Lady Elgin was a side-wheeled paddle steamer and was the most luxurious on the Great Lakes. Her sinking is still the most significant open water loss of life ever on the Great Lakes.
The Lady Elgin wreck was discovered in the waters off Highwood, Illinois, in 1989 and lies in between 15 and 18 meters (50 to 60 feet) of water.
Special permission needs to be sought from anyone wishing to scuba dive her.
What Is the Largest Ship To Sink in Lake Michigan?
Measuring an impressive 194.8 meters (639 feet) in length, the SS Carl D. Bradley is the largest ship ever to have sunk in Lake Michigan.
The ship was a self-unloading Great Lakes freighter, and she broke in two in rough seas on 18th November 1958.
It was supposed to be her last voyage of the season hauling limestone before she was to be laid up in the dry dock for major repairs.
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33 crew members out of 35 lost their lives when she sank. It was later tragically discovered that the Carl Bradley had suffered a structural failure in a gale-force storm due to being over-used, in poor condition, and built from low-quality steel.
The Army Corps of Engineers located the wreck using sonar in 1959.
Expeditions in 1995 and 1997 using submersible vehicles and remotely operated underwater vehicles (ROVs) visited the wreckage and found the ship in two pieces on the bottom, approximately 27 meters (90 feet) apart.
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Only the most advanced technical scuba divers can visit the Carl Bradley as the shipwreck lies in between 95 and 116 meters (310 to 380 feet) of freezing water.
The first divers to visit organized a mission in August 2007 to remove the original ship’s bell in cooperation with the Michigan State government.
They replaced it with a memorial bell listing the names of the victims of the sinking.
6 Other Famous Shipwrecks in Lake Michigan
With so many to choose from, picking out the best of the Lake Michigan wrecks is tricky. However, here’s a list of some of the best known.
1. Le Griffon
Le Griffon is thought to be the oldest wreck in Lake Michigan and was missing for over 300 years until a local explorer claimed to have found the wreckage.
The ship was built by the French explorer René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, and was the first full-sized sailing ship on the upper Great Lakes. She was armed with seven cannons and had a crew of 32.
Le Griffon is thought to have sunk near Escanaba, Michigan, in a violent storm on the return leg of her maiden voyage in 1679.
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The identity, ownership, and location of Le Griffon have been the subject of several lawsuits between the discoverers, the state of Michigan, the U.S. federal government, and the French Government.
Wherever she lies, Le Griffon is undoubtedly the oldest and one of the most interesting Lake Michigan wrecks.
2. Rouse Simmons
The Rouse Simmons was a three-masted wooden schooner that has become better known locally as the Christmas Tree Ship thanks to the cargoes of Christmas trees it carried across the lake.
The ship sank in 1912 during a vicious storm, and none of the crew survived. There were 5,500 trees loaded aboard the ship, and it is thought that both the heavy seas and overloading contributed to the accident.
A message in a bottle was washed ashore with a final, tragic message from the crew. It read “Friday … everybody goodbye.
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I guess we are all through. During the night the small boat washed overboard. Leaking bad. Invald and Steve lost too. God help us.”
The shipwreck was discovered in 1971 six miles northeast of Rawley Point, Wisconsin by a diver searching for a different ship. He searched in an area where local fishermen told him they would often snag their nets.
Several of the Christmas trees were recovered from the wreck, and along with the ship’s wheel and anchor, they are displayed at various locations around the lake.
The Rouse Simmons wreck itself is protected on the National Register of Historic Places.
3. SS Anna C. Minch
The SS Anna C. Minch was carrying a load of hardwood lumber when she sank during the Armistice Day Blizzard on the 11th of November 1940.
This intense winter storm took a total of 146 lives, including all 24 crew aboard the steel-hulled bulk freighter.
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The ship foundered in the storm and eventually broke into two pieces and sank south of Pentwater, Michigan. Sadly, none of the crew member’s bodies were recovered.
The wreck is frequently visited by divers and is regarded as a good, shallow, close-to-shore dive. The bow section is the more extensive and generally regarded as the more enjoyable part to visit.
4. SS Appomattox
The SS Appomattox was a wooden-hulled, steam-engined freighter that ran aground off Shorewood, Wisconsin, at Atwater Beach in 1905.
At 100 meters (330 feet) long, the SS Appomattox, built in 1896 by James Davidson of West Bay City, Michigan, was one of the largest wooden ships ever built.
It could carry a bulk cargo including iron ore and coal of more than 3,000 tonnes and often towed a barge named Santiago to add 5,000 tonnes.
When she sank in 1905, the Appomattox and her barge were en route fully laden with coal. They ran aground in thick fog, and the Appomattox sustained damage to her hull, which was so severe that she couldn’t be refloated and was abandoned.
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The cargo carrier hull broke down and rests in shallow water between 4 and 6 meters (15 and 20 feet) deep.
Thanks to the depth and ready accessibility from the shore, the wreck is very popular to explore by beginning divers and can even be visited by snorkelers and freedivers.
5. SS Francisco Morazan
The Francisco Morazan had a long history before running aground in shallow waters and being declared a total loss.
The ship was built in 1922 in Germany and named Arcadia. She was then renamed Elbing in 1934 and then, after being seized by the British at the end of the second world war, again as Empire Congress.
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She was then given to the Norwegian Government in 1946 and named Brunes. She was renamed three more times before settling on Francisco Morazan in 1959.
We must note that renaming a ship is often considered bad luck. With so many new names, the luck of the Francisco Morazan finally ended when she ran aground in Lake Michigan off South Manitou Island in a snowstorm.
Plans to salvage the ship and its cargo were abandoned due to the bad weather, although islanders have removed materials and cargo to use in subsequent years.
The wreck is the property of the State of Michigan and sits partially out of the water as a somewhat picturesque local landmark.
6. PS Alpena
The paddle steamer Alpena was a wooden steamer built in 1866. The ship sank in the infamous storm named the “Big Blow” on the 15th of October, 1880.
At least 80 people are believed to have died when the sidewheel steamer capsized in the ferocious storm after the ship left Grand Haven.
The wreck’s location is still unknown and is one of the most searched for in lake Michigan.
The beach near Holland was named Alpena Beach in honor of those who died after a significant amount of debris washed up there.
How Deep Are Shipwrecks in Lake Michigan? (Is Lake Michigan Good for Shipwreck Diving?)
The Great Lakes Commission reports that Lake Michigan averages 279 feet in depth (85 meters) and reaches 925 feet (281 meters) at its deepest point.
With just under 1,180 cubic miles of water, it would be easy to imagine that all the Lake Michigan shipwrecks are in really deep water. However, luckily that isn’t the case.
The lake has so many wrecks that you can find them in practically every available depth. There are even very shallow wrecks to explore when snorkeling or on a glass-bottom boat tour.
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There is also a fantastic variety for all levels of scuba divers. Indeed, some have gone so far as to say that the Great Lakes has “the best shipwreck diving in the world.”
Which of the Great Lakes Has the Most Shipwrecks?
Generally, it’s said that there are at least 6,000 shipwrecks in the Great Lakes, and more are discovered each year.
In his book Graveyard of the Lakes, the author Mark Thompson suggests that the total may be as high as 25,000 over more than 300 years, so it is difficult to say precisely which lake has the most.
In terms of pure numbers, it’s said that Lake Michigan has the most shipwrecks, with smaller Lake Erie coming second in numbers and having the most per square mile of water.
Lake Superior may be the largest of the Great Lakes by area, but it’s thought only to have the fourth most wrecks.
There are at least 200 wrecks concentrated along a dangerous 80-mile (128 kilometers) stretch of Superior’s shoreline known as “Shipwreck Coast.”
This includes the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, the largest of all the Great Lakes Wrecks at 729 feet (222 meters).
Lake Michigan’s long and busy maritime history, combined with often treacherous conditions, means the lake’s cold, fresh waters are filled with thousands of shipwrecks.
Lake Michigan shipwrecks offer a fascinating window into more than 300 years of life and catalog the very history of the United States.
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With so many to investigate, you’ll never run out of shipwrecks to explore in the lake, whichever of the four surrounding states you’re visiting.
British-born Dan has been a scuba instructor and guide in Egypt's Red Sea since 2010.
Dan loves inspiring safe, fun, and environmentally responsible diving and particularly enjoys the opportunity to dive with sharks or investigate local shipwrecks.
When not spending time underwater, Dan can usually be found biking and hiking in Sharm's desert surroundings.