Great Lakes shipwrecks offer both fascinating and sad stories, which can be discovered while visiting museums, diving in the wreckage, and taking narrated sightseeing excursions. Both above and below the surface, these ships that did not survive have tales to tell—of courage, loss, the power of nature, and just how mighty the Great Lakes really are. No matter where you're exploring along this system of inland seas, chances are the local record includes tales of at least one shipwreck.
The waters of Lake Superior are not kind once autumn begins to give way to winter. Winds can whip by with forces rivaling an Atlantic hurricane, the waves can tower higher than a building, and there's still ice to contend with. Most vacationers stay on shore once the gales of November arrive, enjoying the striking scenery from a safe distance. Many of the working Great Lakes ships, however, have not had the privilege of staying in dock and some of these have not made their intended destination.
One of the most famous—and relatively recent—of the Great Lakes shipwrecks has been immortalized in song by Gordon Lightfoot. This ship, the Edmund Fitzgerald, and its crew did not survive one of those November storms. In 1975, the work ship sunk beneath the surface of Lake Superior, just off Whitefish Point, which juts off the eastern end of the Upper Peninsula. The memorial to the 29 men who lost their lives is located at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, itself on Whitefish Point. The giant bell was retrieved by divers in 1995 and is now on display at this fascinating museum.
The Edmund Fitzgerald is just one of the Great Lakes ships whose tale is told in the exhibits. As you explore, you can read about other vessels felled by the Shipwreck Coast and see items salvaged from the depths of the biggest freshwater lake in the world. The steamer Vienna, full of iron ore, set sail on a pleasant afternoon in September of 1892, before disaster struck. This time it was not the weather, but an accidental run in with another ship. All of the crew members made it safely to shore, but the ship and its contents were not seen until decades later when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees a lot of the Great Lakes fishing operations, found the ship. Today, you just need to make a visit to the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum to find the wreckage and hear its story.
More than just an interesting place to visit, the museum's staff is active in underwater exploration. There's also a one-of-kind bed and breakfast here on Whitefish Point. The fully resorted quarters where the Coast Guard crew once quartered now can be rented for offering overnight accommodations. This unique choice for Great Lakes vacations includes a morning meal, admission to the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, and a discount for the museum store. The proceeds help support the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historic Society.
You don't have to travel to the Upper Peninsula to find tales of Great Lakes shipwrecks. From Duluth in the west to Alexandria Bay in the east, from Minnesota to New York state, and on both sides of the US Canada border, there are Great Lakes ships beneath the surface of every lake, from Superior Wisconsin to Lake Ontario. When the weather is warm, experienced divers can dip beneath the surface to shipwrecks up close. If you don't want to get wet, you could visit one of the maritime museums on the shore or take a cruise to the site of the wreck. A glassbottom boat tour will allow you to see everything without having to strap on a snorkel.