Shipwreck Dive Sites in Northern Michigan
Straits of Mackinac
(content and writing provided by Craig Passeno)
On May 7th, 1965 the Cedarville was making her way up the Straits of Mackinac from Calcite. There was a dense fog lying in the treacherous area, a narrow confine through which three ships were about to pass blindly. East bound through the Straits were two vessels, the Weissenberg, a German vessel, and ahead of her, the Topdalsfjord, hailing of Norway.
The Cedarville proceeded Westerly while maintaining radio and radar contact with the Weissenberg. They did not check her down, choosing rather to run at full cruising speed. When all three vessels were converging in the Straits, the Weissenberg made it apparent to the Captain of the Cedarville that they had a Norwegian vessel ahead of them. This meant that the looming object on their radar screen was not the Weissenberg with which they had been communicating all along. This was a silent, mysterious ship that was now dreadfully close! The Cedarville immediately altered course to the North, and slowed, but they were too late. Out of the dense fog came clipping along the sharp bow of the Topdalsfjord, spelling death for the Cedarville and some of her crewmen. They were struck roughly amidships on the port side, and after wallowing around vainly trying to keep their hapless ship afloat, they set a course for Mackinaw City, aiming to beach the stricken freighter. That would have been possible, too, had they not fouled up the course and sailed on towards nothing but open lake. At 10:25 AM, the Cedarville rolled to starboard and sank.
The Topdalsfjord continued on, neglecting to stop and witness the ultimate fate of the Cedarville, nor assist in saving the lives of her crew, a job handled by the Weissenberg and the USCG Mackinaw. The two vessels were able to pluck 27 grateful men from the waters. 10 more were not so lucky. By the next morning, tugs and divers had arrived from Cheboygan, fog still thick, and the water milky white from the limestone dust, roiling steadily with bubbles and oil.
Today the wreck of the Cedarville is perhaps the most popular dive site in the Straits of Mackinaw. It is a truly awesome sight to behold underwater, the massive 588 foot freighter lies on her starboard side in 105 feet of water. The bow (pointing East, Southeast) is nearly upside down, whereas the stern lies closer to 90 degrees off kilter. Amidships, the collision damage nearly severs the hulk, and along the center of the vessel, hatch covers are strewn about, while her cargo of limestone spills out onto the lake floor. The cargo holds can easily be swam through, black as night, yet eerily backlit by the murky green squares of half-light creeping up from every open hatch. There is plenty to be seen by swimming carefully about the exterior, however some advanced divers do take the necessary risk to investigate her innards. Doing so carries extreme risk of disorientation due to the catawampus angle of the ship, as well as the likelihood of absolute silt-out or entanglement. There is certainly a coating of zebra mussels which mask her more intricate features, however in doing so they have provided an average 30-40 feet of visibility. Currents and silting are common throughout the Straits, the Cedarville is no exception. Depending on the direction of the current, it can be nullified or aggravated due to the sheer size of the wreck – sometimes you can “hide” from the current during your whole dive, other times you may be swept along the wreck. This is a moderate to advanced dive, caution is recommended. Always be conscious of your abilities, the conditions; remember to start your dive up-current.
Ice is responsible for many shipwrecks in the Great Lakes. The Straits of Mackinaw are no exception, and the wooden steamer Eber Ward is a fine example. In April of 1909, the Ward loaded with a cargo of corn, came to grief when she met an ice floe roughly 4.5 miles West of Mackinaw City. On a calm, clear day the ice ripped a hole through the bow and the vessel plummeted beneath the surface in a matter of minutes, taking 5 souls with her. Her cargo was salvaged later in the year.
The Eber Ward offers divers a great deal to see. The hull is completely intact, save for the gaping hole in the bow, cut open by the ice over 100 years ago. The cabins blew off in the sinking but the deck is far from clean. Two folding anchors adorn the photogenic bow, along with a unique large mushroom anchor hanging from a hawse pipe on the port bow. Moving aft, the diver will take note of a bathtub on deck, a sink, and eventually a toilet. Railings with turned stanchions, cables, pipes, radiators, capstans, and plenty of other articles rest on deck. The fantail stern rises sharply over the enormous 4 blade propeller and hard-over rudder. Moorings are usually connected to the top of the two cylinder steam engine, and the bow (to the South). This is considered an advanced dive due to the maximum depth of 140 feet, possibility of current and silting. Also the Eber Ward offers competent divers the opportunity to penetrate two deck levels for nearly the entire 213 feet of the vessel’s length. In the bow, the diver will see the windlass and numerous hand carts and other items. The engine room and fantail area are littered with debris. Due to recent increasing visibility (average 40 feet) many new discoveries are being made outside of the ship. A bathtub off the bow, lifeboat and stove off the stern, and many more random objects are being discovered. Divers are cautioned not to venture too far from the wreck, the extreme depth and potential current and silting could result in a forced free ascent, a last-resort that is best avoided.
November gales are famous on the Great Lakes, in 1886 the crew of the M. Stalker heeded the threatening weather and decided to ride anchor during a storm, just off Mackinaw City. While laying to, ironically for the sake of safety, they were hit in the early morning hours by a barge in tow. They feverishly worked the pumps against the Stalker’s leaking starboard bow, but when it became apparent that they fought a losing battle, the crew abandoned ship. After watching the cargo of iron ore pull their ship below the waves, they stole away in the yawl for Mackinaw City.
As a dive site, the Stalker is an excellent example of a common two masted lake schooner. At 135 feet long, and a maximum depth of 85 feet, most of the obvious qualities of the wreck can be observed in a single dive. The centerboard winch, wire rigging, bilge pump, windlass and other details make for an interesting, intermediate level dive. The bottom is sandy and has built up dunes around the hull. There is usually a wash-out around the bow that can get as deep as 90 feet, the holds are also full of sand and penetration is hardly possible. Divers are cautioned to keep a sharp look out for the Mackinaw Island ferries, as the wreck lies precisely on their route.
On a bright sunny day, while peacefully boating about the lake, it is difficult for one to imagine that collisions were once an ever-present danger. In June of 1871 the bark Maitland was approaching the Straits from the west on a clear, though dark night. Not having spotted the oncoming schooner Golden Harvest in time, a panicked turn to port proved insufficient to avoid a glancing blow with the vessel, carrying away her masts as well as snapping the Maitland’s bowsprit. Both vessels were severely damaged, but in no immediate danger, that is, until the Maitland was struck moments later by a third schooner! The Mears planted her sharp bow deeply into the Maitland’s starboard side, in line with her foremast, causing the latter to meet the lake bottom in under 5 minutes. Imagine the mad rush the crew must have felt as they worked to free the yawl from the canted, settling deck of the ill-fated bark. It was launched in time, and they arrived safely in Mackinaw City that morning.
The Maitland lies upright and intact in about 85 feet of water. The collision gash is plainly obvious on her starboard side, the windlass is underneath a raised forecastle deck. Bilge pump, centerboard winch, fife rail, and many more classic features of wooden sailing vessels are to be seen along the 133 foot long wreck. Her cargo of corn has long since disappeared, making penetration viable, however the holds now carry a load of fine silt, which if disturbed can make your return trip very dark indeed.
In early April of 1894 the Minneapolis was among the first of the boats to begin the season. Upon entering the Straits of Mackinaw, a rough storm and ice began to fight the wooden steamer. In the wee hours of the morning the wheelsman suspected something had gone awry. Sure enough, the bilges were filling rapidly and all pumps were put to use immediately. Unfortunately the water level continued to rise inside the bowels of the 226 foot long ship. Luck was on their side; the steamer San Diego followed close astern, and upon seeing the distress signals of the Minneapolis, was able to render assistance by removing her crew to safety – only moments before the Minneapolis nosed down to her final resting place in 125 feet of water.
The Minneapolis is perhaps the easiest wreck to find in the Straits of Mackinaw, it lies a mere 500 feet Southwest of the South tower of the Mackinaw Bridge. Being literally in the narrowest part of the Strait, there tends to be a powerful and unpredictable current. The engine and propeller are of interest to the underwater tourist, as are the amenities on the forward part of the ship. The rudder has broken off and lies flat below the propeller. Large iron mooring bits are attached to the bulwarks, the massive bow is a sight to behold. Whitefish are common visitors of this wreck, and one should also be conscious of the entangled nets once used to catch those fish. There is no longer any trace of the cargo of wheat.
The year was 1856, the American Civil War was just around the corner. Lincoln had not yet become president. The crew of seven men sailed the brig Sandusky up Lake Michigan from Chicago with a full load of grain. Upon entering the Straits of Mackinaw, they had no choice but to weather a violent gale. The ship was only 8 years old at the time, and had proved her worth against many calamities, but this storm was different. The crew undoubtedly fought their very hardest, laboring against hope on the bilge pump while others set and furled sails, only to have them torn to shreds by the shrieking winds. The vessel sailed on valiantly, seas pounding harder and harder on her aged timbers, all the while setting lower and lower in the water. As the deck went awash, the men desperately took to the rigging, climbing upwards along the mast for salvation – as the mast glided downwards for impending doom. It was a race that pitted depth against mast height, and one can only imagine the feeling of relief felt by those ill-fated men when the submerged hulk finally touched bottom. Their plight was witnessed by another sailing vessel that put into Mackinaw City with news of the disaster. The side wheel steamer Queen City set out with rescue as her intent. The steamer’s captain located three desolate sailors clinging for dear life to the spar of the wrecked Sandusky. Time and again he pitched his vessel against the furious lake in a vain effort to aid his fellow seamen, however the lake was eventually victorious in claiming the last of the Sandusky’s brave crew.
The diver is encouraged to remember this story as he swims round the wreck, and would be particularly keen to look at the fallen mast and imagine this as the final perch of those sailors of yester-year. Take a sharp look at the leather boot that still rests on deck and imagine the crewman kicking it off in the water after he had been blown off the mast. The wreck of the Sandusky is a beautiful exhibit of a time that has long since passed, and it carries with it a powerful story. For these reasons, as well as the following, the Sandusky is by far one of the most popular wrecks in the Straits of Mackinaw, and well known throughout the Great Lakes.
At about 80 feet maximum depth, with currents rare and visibility often exceeding 40 feet, the Sandusky is an easy dive. It’s relatively short length of 110 feet makes it possible to circle the whole wreck several times, but it will take more than one dive to do it justice. The masts are no longer standing but the bowsprit and jib-boom reach out into the abyss from the sleek, curvy bow. Just below this point rests the most prominent and photogenic feature, the scroll figurehead. The anchors have fallen to the sediment below, their chains still rising majestically to the bow, round the intact windlass. A small kedge anchor rests on deck. The centerboard winch still has the hand crank lever loosely in place. The bilge pump pistons seem ready for action. Deadeyes remain firmly attached to the rails. The rudder and tiller make up the stern, along with the steering wheel stand and barrel. The wreck diver will not be disappointed.
William H. Barnum
In 1894 the wooden propeller William H. Barnum acted out the very fate which was to become that of the Minneapolis. The Barnum had no barges in tow and thus made better time, however she encountered an unhealthy combination of weather and ice. The hard water ground at her bow with awe-inspiring force, opening her seams and dampening her cargo of corn. Just beyond Mackinaw City, after finding collision tarps and her own pumps to be futile, the crew sounded a distress signal which brought the nearby tug Crusader to their assistance. The order was to tow the stricken Barnum to shallow water, but the ice extended from shore to almost 80 feet deep, thus the Crusader steamed away for Cheboygan to gather steam pumps and return – instead the frantic crew of the Barnum sounded their last distress signal, causing the return of the Crusader which removed them to safety and stood by while the Barnum settled below the waves at 6 am on the morning of the 3rd of April. The next day marked the sinking of the similar vessel, Minneapolis, roughly 5 or 6 miles farther West.
The Barnum is an excellent dive site, affording an interesting view of her boilers, enormous single cylinder steam engine, and propeller. The rudder was carefully removed with dynamite, leaving the stern section in shambles, but exposing the engine nicely. The rudder is now on display on the St. Ignace waterfront. Midships, the diver will find collapsed decks, fallen stack, and broken mast, amongst the usual (smaller) incidentals. The bow deck is mostly intact, creating a cavernous section that can be penetrated-albeit with extreme caution-using natural ambient light. Above deck, the windlass is intact, some anchor chain remains but the anchors are lost to history. Examining the forefoot and looking up at the massive bow from the maximum depth of 75 feet is a sight to behold.
Currents are not quite as notorious as other wrecks in the Straits, however it is always possible. Silting seems a bit more likely, though visibility is rarely restricted enough to be of much concern. The site affords a bit of protection from the predominant South and Southwest winds.
As a schooner, the 140 foot William Young had a colorful career on the Lakes. From her nascence in 1863 until her demise in 1891, she sank a total of three times, grounded twice, and was damaged by severe weather once. As with many schooners, in the mid 1880’s she was “cut down” for use as a barge to be towed behind a steamer. They would remove most of the rigging and shorten the masts, left only as a reserve means of propulsion should they lose their towline. In 1891 she found herself among two other schooners being towed behind a steamboat, as the consortium made it’s passage through the Straits, she was unlucky enough to succumb to a collision, her bow was smashed to smithereens; the load of coal and inrush of water likely brought her down in a matter of seconds.
Some 112 years later, the shipwreck’s resting place was discovered by accident during a search for a supposed suicidal leap from the Mackinaw Bridge. The body was never found, later learning that it was a staged faux. However, the sidescan search did happen to turn up the hapless old schooner-barge, laying just as she has for over a hundred years, the site forming an equilateral triangle with the eastern approach buoys to the bridge. She was identified by her registration numbers and tonnage, carved into her main beam.
Divers have flocked to the Straits upon hearing of the new wreck, and it quickly became one of the more popular destinations of locally run dive boats. At a maximum depth of 125 feet, the wreck is within traditional sport diving limits, but the diver is cautioned to keep a very close eye out for currents as the proximity of the wreck to the bottle-neck of the Straits subjects her to very strong and very unpredictable flows. A dive flag provides little comfort when the freighters converge from three angles, bearing down on the site, but a quick look at the chart shows their courses will usually keep them a half mile away. A securitie’ call and a competent boat handler are two things recommended to be left before journeying down to the wreck. Once there, the wreck will entice any diver, being fully intact, less the smashed bow section. The deck is complete, jutting out over the forward wreckage and supporting the windlass, with anchor chains draping haphazardly. The gaping hole makes for an interesting swim through, however farther penetration is a very tight squeeze best left to those trained and equipped in the practice, and devoting their entire dive to their dark silty agenda. The decks are abound with dead-eyes, blocks, carved oak cleats, a winch and magnificent ship’s wheel. Along the starboard side on the bottom lies a mast, complete with most of the rigging and crows nest. Leaving the wreck aft, a guide line will take you to the cabin roof, merely a few pieces of wood. However on the right day with good visibility, this affords a spectacular view of the stern, rising high and majestically with rudder hard over.
If one was to leave the Cheboygan river and keep going straight, after about 5 miles one would be visiting Bois Blanc Island. If, however, one was to stop a mile or two short, they would be floating about 60 feet over the remains of a small schooner. The intrepid visitor is cautioned to keep a sharp eye for smoke on the horizon, use a conspicuous dive flag, and put out a securitie’ call – as this wreck lies right in the shipping lane. Perhaps this has something to do with the condition of the wreck, mostly broken up and somewhat scattered and buried. Certainly this explains why no moorings or marker buoys ever stay put more than a few days. And still further, perhaps it is a clue to the name of the vessel. Being broken up as it is, there is no firm evidence as to the identity of the poor boat. Most divers speculate it to be the either the Robert Burns or Perseverance.
The Robert Burns was lost in a a classic November gale in 1869, east of Bois Blanc Island, taking ten souls with her. The Burns operated as a brig. She was located and raised by Captain Peter Falcon the next spring. He took her in tow and unfortunately she sank again, this time for good.
The Perseverance was a schooner, in 1864 she met with a sickening thud the hull of the schooner Grey Eagle. Since that time her hulk has rested on the bottom of the lake, reported as off Cheboygan.
Whatever the identity of the wreck, it is an easy and fun dive. The wreckage is rather flat with the exception of a large portion of bow, and the centerboard box. There are a few deadeyes and other interesting bits of the construction to be seen. A long oar rests in in the sandy clay bottom along the port side. Use caution when grappling the wreck and be sure to tie in.
Henry J. Johnson
Aside from the Cedarville, the next largest shipwreck in the area is the Henry J. Johnson. The Johnson is a wooden propeller of 260 feet. In 1902 she was hauling a load of iron ore from Escanaba to Cleveland, however, she fell short of arriving at her destination. Instead, in a dense fog, she was struck a mortal blow by the propeller Fred Pabst. The Pabst knifed into the Johnson’s hold, ten feet aft of the bow. The cool July lake water rushed in, greatly supplementing the weight of the iron ore in it’s struggle to pull the Johnson beneath the waves. The crew managed to escape via lifeboats, while the Pabst steamed on. After some time they were picked up by a passing tug and taken safely to Cheboygan.
The Johnson scarcely made it past 9 mile point before foundering. The wreck site is now a 4 mile ride from Hammond Bay Refuge Harbor. Her fully intact hull (less cabins) is exciting to examine. The collision damage and bow section have plenty of areas to examine, while the stern sports the engine, propeller, and rudder. Divers beware; it is indeed a very long swim to make with a maximum depth of 160 feet – and even longer on the return trip. Penetration is possible, but again limited to those with the proper training and experience to effect a safe return.
James R. Bentley
Early in the morning of 12 November 1878, the schooner James R. Bentley sailed through the Straits of Mackinaw, bringing her cargo of rye from Chicago to Buffalo. The voyage would not be completed, however. Fate had other plans for the modest 178 foot schooner, as her bottom met stone on one of several reefs east of Cheboygan. The tremendous thud brought the vessel’s centerboard up and jammed it so. Her seams parted and water entered the hold. All crewmen were rousted by the sudden jolt and their hands busied with the pumps and rigging – her captain trying in vain to turn his command about and beat back to the safety of shelter and shallow, calm waters. There was a strong NNW wind blowing, and with no centerboard he could not effect an about-face. For hours the crew worked frantically to save the vessel, but to no avail. Per the Captain’s order, the 8 crewmen abandoned into the ship’s small yawl boat, pulling away against a heaving sea while watching their ship go down by the bow.
The Erastus Corning witnessed the disaster and made a course to intercept the forlorn yawl. By this time the seas were running so high that the Captain of the Erastus Corning had to throw over his oil bags to calm the waters, lest the tiny yawl be smashed to kindling against his hull. The nine men were brought safely aboard and delivered to Buffalo. The Bentley lay untouched until her discovery in 1984.
The wreck lies 6.5 miles almost due North of Hammond Bay Refuge Harbor, very much near the wreck of the Persian, wrecked ten years earlier. The Bentley has a mast still standing, is very much intact and makes for quite a dive, despite having had many of her more intricate items stripped. The maximum depth is about 160 feet, making it an advanced dive, but well worth the extra effort.
Newell A. Eddy
The Newell Eddy was an enormous schooner of 242 feet, 40 in the beam, and drew a substantial 16 feet. Her three massive masts stood proudly reaching for the skies, and for three years after her launching in 1890, she served the lakes well. This was to change in early 1893, while under tow of the propeller Charles Eddy and loaded with her cargo of corn, they entered a ripping Southeast gale. One can imagine the battle that ensued between both vessels and nature, with fierce biting winds stinging the lips and carrying away all but the loudest words. The rigging was gathering ice faster than anyone could even think to do anything about it, all while tossed about like a rag doll in the mouth of an overgrown puppy. As with many shipwreck stories, none of the 9 men were left to tell of their forlorn saga, thus we surmise and fill in the gaps left us by posterity. It is known that the Charles Eddy had trouble with her steering gear and was forced to effect less than medial repairs. This may well have been the determining factor which caused the two boats to become separated. They now fought a common enemy as two separate entities, a propeller with lackluster steering, and a schooner without the head start of having any sail up. The Charles’ bout was a success, she managed to struggle her way to the safety of Cheboygan. The Newell Eddy, on the other hand, had a much rougher go of it. It is doubtful that they were able to raise sail, due to the howling winds, icing conditions, and mammoth cross sea. Rather, they dropped anchor in the lone expanse of the lake, hoping, if nothing else, to get their bow into the waves. It is probable that this worked, however all together improbable that the lone anchor was enough to hold them into the wind and waves, then running the length of Lake Huron. The staunch, proud vessel had little warning before her stern was lifted high, then straining and pivoting on her own anchor chain, thrust down upon Raynold’s Reef as if by the hand of Zeus. Her stern section was crippled beyond hope, splintered and disheveled while wave after monstrous wave pounded her lifeless hulk over the reef and down the slope, from 11 feet of depth she did not stop until she arrived in 165 feet, dragging anchor the whole way, like the nails of a cat’s paw vainly clawing against fate. The tops of her once proud masts now shivered in the gloomy deep. Nothing was to be seen, save for the odd piece of flotsam or frozen body of a sailor adorning a wave crest, sweeping over the horizon.
Several days later, the transom and some wreckage from the stern section was discovered, washed up on the lee shore near Bois Blanc Island Light, the vessel’s nameboard intact.
After it’s discovery in 1992 by the research vessel Laurentian, the wrecksite developed a reputation for being a very challenging technical dive. This was due to the extremely low visibility at depth; dark and silty. Adding to the challenge was the staggering depth, bone numbing cold, currents, and sheer size of the ship. All of these things conspired against the diver and exacerbated his narcosis. Nowadays, zebra mussels have coated the timbers and cleared the waters, relieving much frustration of diving in utter blackness on a large and unfamiliar wreck. The water is potentially warmer, at least later in the season, and the wrecksite has become a very popular destination for the diver interested in seeing the massive, grand ship.
Today, the Newell Eddy can be found about a quarter mile North of Raynold’s Reef, a 14 mile boat ride from Cheboygan, or Hammond Bay. The mooring is usually fixed to the top of the foremast, one of three that are still erect. Descending, the diver will find themselves clearing 75 feet before settling on the foremast cross trees. It is already getting gloomy and cold, at this; the halfway point. Continuing down, the mast gets bigger and bigger, gracefully outlined by the numerous wire cables draped alongside, and sporadically adorned with the occasional block, cleat, and finally a fife rail with belaying pins in place. Landing on the deck, at about 140 feet, the gloominess is marked, but visibility often exceeds 30 feet, thus allowing the intrepid explorer to peer over the bulwark and see the lake bottom below, the moldy cargo of corn deep in the holds, the anchor chain extending off the bow into oblivion, under the bowsprit that points towards the reef, like a finger shaking with contempt. The capstan is in place, its clean brass cover clearly displaying the vessels name, builders, and launch date. The raised forecastle covers the windlass and spare rigging, just aft on the main deck sits a large donkey boiler for power. Deadeyes, belaying pins, blocks, booms, winches, open hatches and many more items will keep the diver rubber-necking on his way aft, past the three masts, finally arriving at the mess of kindling that was once the vessel’s stern. Flattened and missing the transom, it is hard to resist poking between the planks in search of some form of treasure, some romantic item that will provide an intimate connection with the tragic past. It is a long swim back to the foremast, and a long ascent; divers are cautioned to heed their gauges and timers while swimming so far at such a depth. Somewhere on the forecastle deck sits a small cross with a date, serving as a token of remembrance to the late Jim Montcalm, and a stolid reminder to all divers to remain ever vigilant in their underwater endeavors.