It’s Thanksgiving, and Kim McDaniel is taking a walk along the shore of Lake Michigan near her home in Muskegon. She’s keen to see what damage might have been caused by the fierce storm the day before. But what she discovers emerging from the sand is so unexpected that she calls the Coast Guard to investigate.
Those who live along the shores of Lake Michigan are well accustomed to storms – as are the sailors who navigate its waters. Fall often sees extremely wild weather crossing the lake, and high winds can whip up waves as high as 15 feet, sometimes causing damage to properties along the shoreline. And this bad weather can put ships on the water at risk, too.
But that storm on the day before Thanksgiving 2019 was a humdinger. Winds gusted up to 40 mph, and local businesses were forced into early closure by power blackouts. South Haven – just over 60 miles south of Muskegon on Lake Michigan’s western shore – was even forced to close its beach: the risk from flooding was just too high.
Incidentally, there had been some ferocious weather back in October, too. These storms had resulted in severe erosion along the western shore of Lake Michigan – where the brunt of the high winds and rain had been felt. And matters hadn’t been helped by the fact that water levels across the Great Lakes, including Michigan, had nearly reached record-breaking highs for the time of year.
So, it’s hardly surprising that Muskegon-native McDaniel had decided to check out the storm damage near her home on Thanksgiving. As the woman strolled along the lakeshore, she caught sight of a strange shape near the water’s edge. McDaniel couldn’t work out what this mysterious object might be – but she knew that she hadn’t seen it before. We’ll come back to the discovery shortly, but first, let’s learn a little more about Lake Michigan and some of the secrets that lurk beneath its surface.
You’ll probably remember from grade school geography that Lake Michigan is one of North America’s five Great Lakes. Strictly speaking, there are actually only four great lakes since Michigan is linked by a slim channel, the Straits of Mackinac, to Lake Huron. So the two lakes form one large expanse of water by virtue of their connection. However, in everyday usage, Michigan and Huron stand alone.
Of the five Great Lakes, Michigan is the only one without a section in Canada. It’s surrounded by four U.S. states: Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin and Illinois. McDaniel, as we’ve seen, was on that section of the lakeshore that’s within Michigan State when she saw that mysterious object in the water.
Human presence at Lake Michigan goes back at least to the Hopewell Indians, who were there until around A.D. 800. After that various other North American native peoples occupied the region. It was probably in the 1630s that Europeans first arrived at Lake Michigan in the shape of a Frenchman: one Jean Nicolet. He is said to have dressed in vivid colors and to have brandished two pistols to impress the locals.
As European settlement gathered pace from the late-17th century, Lake Michigan became an important transport link for the movement of goods and people. It was part of a network of waterways stretching as far south as the Gulf of Mexico. So it had various vessels plying its waters from an early date.
By the 19th century, as Lake Michigan’s commercial importance increased, cities and ports began to flourish on its shores, including Chicago, Green Bay and Milwaukee. Indeed, before the Civil War, Chicago shipped 90 percent of grain that arrived at the city eastwards across the lake. Even after the later advent of the railroads, 50 percent of grain still traveled across Lake Michigan.
So shipping was a major activity. And even although Michigan is an inland lake, ships often found themselves in trouble thanks to the unpredictable weather patterns and the storms that can seemingly appear from nowhere. The list of vessels sunk on the lake is a long one, as is the roll call of sailors and passengers who have lost their lives over the years.
The most tragic of incidents on Lake Michigan, and indeed on all of the Great Lakes, came in 1860. It involved the P.S. (Paddle Steamer) Lady Elgin, a timber-built vessel fitted with side paddles driven by steam engines. She was constructed in Buffalo, New York in 1851 and was said to have been one of the Great Lakes’ most luxurious and graceful passenger ships.
Lady Elgin seems to have been something of an accident-prone vessel. She sank in 1854 after an argument with a rock but was repaired and returned to service. A fire broke out aboard her in 1857 and the following year she crashed into a reef at Copper Harbor, Michigan. Later that same year she was stranded in a Lake Superior reef.
But all of those were relatively minor mishaps compared to what happened to the unfortunate Lady Elgin in the early hours of September 8, 1860. On September 6, she had set sail from Milwaukee, bound for Chicago. Some 300 of those on board were members of the Irish Union Guard, an anti-slavery militia group. They attended political speeches during the day in Chicago followed by an evening enlivened by a German brass band back on the ship.
As the passengers enjoyed the stirring brass band music, the Lady Elgin steamed across Lake Michigan. Then, out of the darkness, a schooner, Augusta, out of Oswego, rammed straight into the Elgin’s port side. The Augusta’s bowsprit, the spar at her bow, was damaged. But the outcome of the collision was far more serious for the Lady Elgin.
The impact, which came some ten miles from the shore, holed the Lady Elgin below the waterline. The Augusta’s captain, apparently believing that the Elgin was not seriously damaged, sailed on to his destination of Chicago, leaving his stricken victim behind in his wake. This action was to have dire consequences.
On board the Elgin, it was quickly apparent to her skipper, Captain Jack Wilson, that his vessel faced a serious emergency. Indeed, after his first mate woke him, the two men surveyed the damage and rapidly reached the conclusion that their vessel would surely sink. They began to take what action they could.
Wilson and his men attempted to get their vessel to ride higher in the water to stop the inflow of water though the gash in the hull. To lighten the vessel, they pushed live cattle, various bits of cargo and other items overboard. They even tried to plug the hole with mattresses. But it was all to no avail. After just 20 minutes, the Lady Elgin broke up and sank.
Amazingly, this was not the end of the road for most of the crew and passengers. Talking to Milwaukee’s WTMJ-TV in 2016, the Wisconsin Underwater Archeology Association’s Brendan Baillod explained what happened after the ship sank. Baillod said, “People started to spill into the lake, they were clinging to debris wherever they could find them.”
Baillod continued, “Most of the people who were on the Lady Elgin survived the two-hour ride to shore on the debris, what they did not survive was the huge surf of the shoreline.” Of those aboard the ship, 98 survived and were rescued. More than 300 people lost their lives according to most accounts, although Baillod believes the number to be closer to 400. As there was no accurate passenger manifest, it’s difficult to be sure.
In terms of lives lost, the sinking of the Lady Elgin is the worst nautical disaster that the Great Lakes have ever seen. And Baillod described the grim aftermath of the disaster, “People washed up all across the whole shoreline of the lake.” The wreck of the Lady Elgin lay undiscovered for 128 years until it was found in 1989 off the city of Highwood, Illinois.
Fortunately, no other wreck on Lake Michigan cost so many lives, but many other ships have sunk over the years. As recently as 1960, cargo ship S.S. Francisco Morazan set sail across Lake Michigan from Chicago. In a snowstorm, the ship lost its bearings and grounded just 300 yards from the shore. Luckily, the crew of 13 and the captain’s pregnant wife were all rescued although the vessel was a total write-off.
So Lake Michigan is no stranger to disaster. In fact, in modern times, catastrophes involving shipping are much rarer thanks to modern technology and merchant shipping that’s built to a much higher standard than once was the case. But from time to time, evidence of past disasters still emerges from the lake’s shifting waters and mud banks.
And that brings us back to Muskegon resident Kim McDaniel. It’s time we found out just exactly what she spotted just off the shore near her home on Thanksgiving. As we’ve seen, she had gone for a walk to check on the damage caused by a terrific storm the day before when she saw a weird apparition in the water.
McDaniel was walking along the scenic mile-long sandy beach at Muskegon’s Norman F. Kruse Park on Lake Michigan’s Norton Shores when she spotted something strange in the waters of the lake. The park is a popular spot with dog walkers and families with children. Summer sees picnickers and families enjoying the beauty spot.
At first, McDaniel could only make out a dark shape peeking out from the water. Shockingly, closer examination showed that it was actually an old shipwreck that had appeared, ghostlike, above the waves. Erosion caused by the high winds and turbulent waves of the previous day’s had exposed the eerie remains of a timber-hulled ship.
As we’ve seen, shipwrecks are hardly a rarity in the waters of Lake Michigan, but this latest storm had revealed this one for the first time in many years. McDaniel decided that the best thing to do in the circumstances was to alert the Coast Guard. She duly called the U.S. Coast Guard Station at Grand Haven first thing the next morning.
As McDaniel later told ABC affiliate 13 On Your Side, “We were shocked to see this boat that was not there the day before.” Once she’d alerted the Coast Guard to her discovery, staff there reported the wreck to local historians. Divers now went on to the lake to take a closer look at the sunken wreck.
One of those who went into the icy waters of Lake Michigan to get a closer look at the rotting timbers of the wreck was John Hanson, president of the West Michigan Underwater Preserve. That organization works with the state of Michigan to explore and protect wrecks and other archeological features found in the lake’s western coastal area.
Hanson measured the wreck and found it to be 88 feet in length and 21 feet across its beam. He reckoned the vessel was a cargo-carrying barge probably built in the 19th century. Hanson told Fox News, “The wreck is about one-third covered up now. It has lost a few boards from wave action.”
Hanson talked to a historian about the find and was told him that this very boat might have been involved in a tragedy on the lake in 1936. In that year, a ship was transporting a large steam-powered crane from Muskogen up the coast to Grand Haven, about a dozen miles south down Lake Michigan’s western shore.
The crane was a Bucyrus Erie Steam Crane, built in 1915. However, what should have been a routine trip, transporting the crane along the Lake Michigan shoreline, ended abruptly in disaster. After the barge sprung a leak, the inflowing water destabilized the vessel when it was about a quarter-mile out on the lake.
In January 2020 Hanson told the WWMT News station what had happened after the barge had gotten into trouble. He explained, “The Coast Guard was called, and being a very old barge, when they hooked onto it and pulled on it, they pulled the bow right off of it. The steam crane went into the water and exploded because it was still hot.”
The crane had drifted, or been pushed by storm surges, around half a mile from where the barge now lies. And there’s good evidence that this really is the barge that carried that crane. Hansen points out that the wreck is missing its bow, tying in with what’s known about the incident back in 1936.
And the remnants of that crane were actually discovered in 2011. It’s now one of the 15 underwater shipwrecks in the West Michigan Underwater Preserve area, and it’s tagged as a dive site. In fact, the preservation area has 13 sites that are classified as underwater museums that divers can visit and explore.
And the appearance of that wrecked barge is not the only evidence of the ferocity of that Lake Michigan storm the day before Thanksgiving. Felled trees have effectively barricaded off the beach at Kruse Park. What’s more, the sandy stretch there has been reduced from its former glory to a slim strip. A stairway that led on to the beach has been destroyed. All in all, it makes for a sad picture of devastation.
After McDaniel had discovered the wreck, her main anxiety was that it should be preserved. She was worried that people would flock to the scene for a look at this intriguing barge wreck. But as she pointed out, most of the viewpoints were actually on private land or atop dunes that were now hazardous because of the erosion resulting from the latest storm.
McDaniel told the 13 On Your Side news station, “Please, please respect this relic. Please give the professionals a chance to measure her, to identify her – right now she is unknown, she is uncharted. Please be careful. These bluffs are eroding, they are falling in. It is not safe, please be careful.”
John Hanson added his words to McDaniel’s plea. He said, “These are historical sites. They’re museums, in essence. You wouldn’t walk into a museum and say, ‘Hey, there’s a shrunken head’ and take it home. You want to leave it there for other people to see and experience. It’s part of our maritime heritage.”
However, it seems that nature may solve the problem of preserving the wreck for posterity and perhaps more detailed investigation in the future. By early January, the action of the lake’s waters had actually begun to cover the shipwrecked barge over. And Hanson was of the opinion that it might well be submerged beneath the lake’s surface again within just a few months.