Posted by Eric Gaertner | The Muskegon Chronicle April 05, 2008 22:48PM
Not far from the Hackley and Hume historic sites and the Muskegon County Museum downtown are structures waiting to provide visitors a look at a different time in our history.
Yet few people realize the existence of these structures, some more than 100 years old and hundreds of feet long, unseen by the naked eye.
They are shipwrecks that reside at the bottom of Lake Michigan off the West Michigan coastline -- underwater historical exhibits telling tales of tragedy, history and, in some cases, survival.
These local wrecks from Grand Haven to Pentwater cover a wide range of sizes, shapes and shipping eras. They are found in various depths, from just off the shoreline in 15 feet of water to hundreds of feet below the surface where only the most advanced divers are able to descend.
Watch the underwater video of dives on the Anna C. Minch and the Novadoc near Pentwater. Both sank on Nov. 11, 1940.
|Diving on shipwrecks|
Despite their differences, the wrecks provide a time capsule of Great Lakes shipping and their crews.
An abundance of wrecks
There have been about 8,000 Great Lakes wrecks, according to researchers, and the cold, fresh water keeps them better preserved than those found in oceans.
Though Lake Michigan is considered the most dangerous of the Great Lakes, the West Michigan area has a wreck density that is slightly less than other parts of the Big Lake and is not considered a top dive destination, said shipwreck historian and researcher Brendon Baillod.
Baillod is also an author who is working on a book about Oceana County's shipwrecks, "Ghosts of the Oceana Coast." Still, there are plenty of "notable" wrecks off the coast from Pentwater to Grand Haven, Baillod said.
Among the most interesting wrecks and divable points along the West Michigan shoreline are:
• The Armistice Day wrecks off Pentwater.
• The State of Michigan off the White Lake Channel.
• The Ironsides off Grand Haven.
• The Brighty off the Oceana County coast.
• The Neptune near the Little Sable Point.
The area isn't home to widely famous wrecks such as the Edmund Fitzgerald or the Carl D. Bradley, the two largest ships to sink on the Great Lakes that took the lives of many sailors. Area wrecks mainly came from the local traffic of lumber schooners or small passenger steamers and vessels in transit from Milwaukee or Chicago to the Straits of Mackinac, Baillod said.
"Storms would tend to blow vessels ashore on your stretch of beach," Baillod said.
Based on his research, Baillod estimates that about 250 wrecks -- not all of which have been found and documented -- are located off the shoreline from Oceana south to Ottawa County.
For some local divers, the history and research make the dives worthwhile. For others, the opportunity to dive and view a unique underwater structure supersedes the actual story behind the wreck.
John Hanson, 54, of Montague, reads about all the local shipwrecks before diving them. In some cases, he also talks with museum workers and relatives of those who served on the ship.
"I like doing the research, finding out the history of the wreck," Hanson said. "It brings you in touch with the people who served on them."
Colin DeVries, 66, of Whitehall Township, also enjoys the historical nature of shipwreck diving. As a diver for 45 years and a travel coordinator for West Michigan Dive Center for 30 years, DeVries has been to countless wrecks in locations covering six of the seven continents.
"I've always had an interest," DeVries said of shipwrecks and their histories. "The idea of any diver is to find something new yourself, but that's usually left to a few."
Valerie van Heest is one of those few. Along with her Holland-based group, Michigan Shipwreck Research Associates, she searches for undocumented shipwrecks, some in deep water off West Michigan, mainly from Pentwater to the Indiana border. The group uses its research to pinpoint the best locations to search and publicizes the history of a ship when it discovers a new wreck.
MSRA has discovered or rediscovered nine shipwrecks in its 10 years of Lake Michigan exploration. MSRA uses its historical research and specialized sonar equipment to explore specific areas.
Dan Bloom, 48, of Roosevelt Park, leaves the research and history to others. He reads books about some wrecks, but mainly he just enjoys the "peaceful, natural feeling" he gets from being underwater.
"I like to go down and look at the vessel and appreciate what is there," said Bloom, who owns West Michigan Dive Center Travel.
Some wrecks to remember
Local divers have their favorites, some based on the ship's history and some based on the look of the wreck now.
The State of Michigan, near the White Lake Channel, is among the top shipwreck dive sites, according to the local divers. It sank in 1901 and sits on the bottom of Lake Michigan in about 65 feet of water.
Bloom describes the wreck as having the starboard side of the hull and the propellor still intact, while the bow is pointed toward the shore. He cautioned that divers will encounter the ship's boiler at about 47 feet down.
"There's a lot still there," Bloom said. "It's an enjoyable wreck."
"There's a real neat deck cart there, and, of course, it's now covered by zebra mussels," Hanson said. "The wreck now looks like a giant row boat. There's no deck on it anymore."
The Ironsides, off Grand Haven, also is considered one of the prime local dive sites, because the ship is in relatively good condition for a wooden steamer that sank in 1873. The wreck is in about 110 feet of water.
"That one's probably the most intact," DeVries said. "It's made of wood and most usually fall apart over the years and this one hasn't."
"It's nice because it's a little deeper, a more advanced dive so not everyone goes out there," Bloom said.
The wreck of the Henry Cort off the north side of the Muskegon Channel is quite historic because of the story behind its sinking. The 320-foot whaleback steamer hit the heavy stone breakwater after encountering a storm packing 45 mph winds on Nov. 30, 1934.
The incident featured an amazing rescue by the U.S. Coast Guard that saved the 25 men on board, but one of the Coast Guard members died after being washed out of the boat.
Hundreds on shore watched as the Coast Guard shot a line from the pier to the Henry Cort and all 25 men climbed hand over hand along the line to the pier. From there, the men huddled together and slowly made the trek along the slippery rocks of the breakwater, oftentimes as huge waves broke over their heads.
The wreck sits on the outside of the north breakwater in about 30 feet of water. DeVries said the wreck is partially covered up now with some anchor chain still visible, but he cautioned that divers must be careful with the boat traffic using the channel.
A natural museum
All of these area shipwrecks would be part of a proposed underwater preserve. A local group, including divers, is attempting to get the area from just south of Grand Haven to Pentwater established as the West Michigan Underwater Preserve. The group's goal is to help protect the shipwrecks, highlight the area as a tourism diving destination and sink a cleaned vessel as an artificial shipwreck.
A state-recognized preserve also would help recognize the stories behind these area wrecks and how the sinkings occurred.
Like the Cort, vessels being driven ashore by storms is considered one of the main reasons for the shipwrecks on the Great Lakes. Baillod said waves, which tend to be steeper and occur on shorter intervals than those on the ocean, and the sudden, severe weather that often hits the region, especially in November, are major factors.
"November storms on the Lakes blow in unabated across the Great Plains and strike with incredible fury," Baillod said. "Fall was also the season when cargoes were most in demand, such as grain and crops needed over the winter, coal needed for heating, etc. There was a tremendous incentive for ships to go out during the most dangerous season."
The state government deems these shipwrecks unique resources that can trace the history of Michigan. As such, state officials manage shipwrecks as public trust resources that must be protected for future generations to explore and study.To protect those publicly owned resources, the state legislature amended a law in 1994 that established fines and penalties for "illegally removing, altering or destroying artifacts" from shipwrecks. The law does not restrict searching for, diving on or photographing shipwrecks.
Dealing with disaster
Preparation is The Best Defense
According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), flooding is the nation's single most common natural disaster and can happen in every state. Tornados are nature's most violent storms and can happen anywhere. Hurricanes can cause storm surge, high winds, tornadoes and flooding. Wildfires are a major concern in drought-prone regions. And don't forget mudslides and blizzards.
Should you have to evacuate, the DHS (Ready.gov) recommends that you carry enough emergency supplies to make it on your own for at least three days. A basic emergency kit should include water, 1 gallon per person per day for drinking and sanitation; nonperishable food; battery-powered radio and flashlight; extra batteries; first-aid kit; whistle to signal for help; dust mask to help filter the air; moist towelettes; and cash or travelers checks, appropriate clothing, diapers, medications, glasses, pet food, etc.
"Think of food as fuel when you're shopping for your emergency kit," says Sunbelt Snacks Registered Dietitian Joanne V. Lichten, Ph.D., R.D., author of "Dr. Jo's How To Stay Healthy & Fit on the Road." She recommends the following items to fuel your engine during an emergency:
• Ready-to-eat canned (or vacuum-packed) meats including tuna, salmon, sardines and kippers.
• Canned (or ready-to-eat vacuum-packed) fruits such as peaches, fruit cocktail and apple sauce.
• Canned vegetables including corn and green beans.
• Peanut butter and jelly.
• Dried fruit including raisins, cranberries, peaches and apricots.
• Whole-grain crackers, crisp flatbread.
• 100 percent fruit juice and sports drinks.
• Nonperishable pasteurized milk or powdered milk (to add to safe water source).
• Granola cereal, granola bars or fruit-filled cereal bars.
Flooding is the nation's single most-common natural disaster and can happen in every state.RS