Shipwreck Coast – A Most Superior Southeastern Shore

Much of Michigan’s Lake Superior shore has wild yet serene beauty— it’s a timeless place where you’re as likely to see a deer or bear wandering along a sandy beach as you are another human. But the waters offshore are quite a different story. For over a century, Lake Superior has been a busy waterway, where timber once was hauled on wooden schooners and steamships, and now bulk commodities like iron ore are loaded on 1,000-foot freighters. Dozens of lighthouses were built to guide them, but they’re no match for 350-mile-long Lake Superior, the largest and fiercest of the Great Lakes. Especially along its southeastern shore and off the north shore of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where prevailing northwest storms unleash their full fury, hundreds of shipwrecks litter its deep, dark bottom like skeletons.

Michigan protects its unusual wealth of sunken relics with nine underwater preserves, marked for divers and regulated to prevent looting. At the Alger Underwater Preserve near Munising, nondivers can get a fascinating underwater look at century-old ships abandoned at the bottom of Munising Bay. Glass-bottom boats with large viewing wells glide right over the hulls and decks of wooden schooners, well preserved by Superior’s clean and frigid water. Just a few feet under the glass, they silently slide into view like haunting historic paintings.

Canadian Gordon Lightfoot sang about the 29-man crew of the Edmund Fitzgerald, the freighter that sank in 1975 at the lake’s east end off Whitefish Point: “The searchers all say they’d have made Whitefish Bay if they put 15 more miles behind her.” The remote, windswept point is a fitting location for the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, which memorializes the dozens of vessels that failed to round it and reach the safety of the bay. The complex of renovated maritime buildings (some original, some relocated to the site) includes the museum—which displays the Fitzgerald’s bronze bell—an 1861 light keeper’s quarters, a fog signal building, a boathouse, theater, and a small inn housed in the 1923 Coast Guard crew quarters.

Of the handful of light keepers’ homes in the Upper Peninsula that have been converted into B&Bs, the Big Bay Point Lighthouse B&B is perhaps the nicest. Several other Michigan lights are open to the public for visits, such as the Point Iroquois Light Station east of Whitefish Point where you can tour through the light keeper’s home, then get a taste of his job by climbing the spiral stairway up the tower.