For two centuries, mariners have matched wits with the Great Lakes, braving gales, fog banks and rock-strewn shoals that turn coastlines into nature’s minefields.
Now the federal government and the state of Michigan are teaming up to preserve a legacy of those sometimes deadly voyages.
The Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary and Underwater Preserve will protect more than 100 shipwrecks that litter the bottom of the bay in northern Lake Huron off Alpena.
Thousands of divers visit Thunder Bay each year. The sanctuary will enable landlubbers to enjoy its treasure trove of artifacts as well. Plans call for an interpretive center featuring video images of wrecks, including live footage as divers conduct archaeological surveys.
“Videos can now be developed that basically give the non-diver the same sensation as being under water,” diver John McConnell said Wednesday. He has explored the bay since 1978 and served on a committee that helped plan the sanctuary.
Thunder Bay is the 13th national marine sanctuary, and the only one in fresh water.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has designated the sanctuaries over the past 25 years. Most are meant to protect natural resources, such as California’s Monterey Bay and the Florida Keys.
Thunder Bay will be the second built around cultural, or human-made, resources. The other is the wreckage of the Monitor, the famed Civil War ironclad submerged off the North Carolina coast.
While many spots along the Great Lakes are hazardous, Thunder Bay became known as “Shipwreck Alley” in the 19th century. It was part of a major shipping channel during an era when the region had few alternatives for moving cargo.
Ships often sought refuge in the bay during vicious squalls that seemingly arose from nowhere, only to founder amid hidden sandbars and boulders.
Based on historical records, marine archaeologists believe 116 wrecks are within the 448-square-mile sanctuary. About 40 have been located. The shipwrecks offer a virtual encyclopedia of maritime history, ranging from wooden sailboats to steel-hulled steamers.
Under the sanctuary program, efforts will continue to locate, survey and map ships using high-tech methods, such as laser imaging.
Among the better known wrecks is the Isaac M. Scott, a propeller-driven coal carrier that fell victim to Lake Huron’s Great Storm of 1913, which scuttled 11 vessels in 16 hours.
A Boon to Education
Many of the wrecks are well preserved in Huron’s chilly waters. The Great Lakes do not have the salinity that causes ocean shipwrecks to rust, McConnell said.
“This will give a boost to tourism, but the real contribution is to education, to history,” said Richard McElroy, director of the Alpena Area Chamber of Commerce. “If you were not a diver, this was all closed to you. Now it’s going to be open.”
The federal government and the state of Michigan will jointly manage Thunder Bay, which was dedicated during a ceremony last weekend. The other 12 marine sanctuaries are entirely under NOAA’s control.