More than 1,000 ships rest at the bottom of Lake Michigan
"How many ships are in the bottom of Lake Michigan?," asked a camper from Lake County Forest Preserve's fishing camp last summer.
Lake Michigan, slightly smaller than the state of West Virginia, is the only Great Lake entirely within the United States.
Its shoreline has provided shelter and food since 800 A.D. when Native Americans lived along the lake and used its tributaries to connect to the Mississippi River.
Lake Michigan is a primary sea highway. Thousands of commercial ships have plied its waters to reach ports along the four border states. People enjoy the lake for its beautiful sand and rocky beaches and its recreational benefits, including fishing, boating, cruising and water craft enthusiasts.
Valerie van Heest, an expert diver, underwater archaeologist, film producer, speaker, museum exhibit designer and author of six books about Lake Michigan shipwrecks, reports there are more than 1,000 ships at the bottom of Lake Michigan. She explored her first shipwreck at age 16, the George Morley, an 1800s steamer that sank only 300 feet from the Evanston shoreline. Her World War II Navy diver father encouraged her to earn scuba certification and in turn she's encouraged her daughters Cella, 14, and Taya, 12, to become certified.
Van Heest co-founded the Underwater Archaeological Society of Chicago and Michigan Shipwreck Research Association for diving enthusiasts who enjoy researching and visiting underwater shipwrecks.
Identifying wrecks under Lake Michigan is no easy task, with depths ranging from 279 to 975 feet -- the equivalent of a 9-story building.
"The number of wrecks has been developed by several researchers who have created databases over the years for the use of historians such as me. They have checked vessel enrollments and newspaper articles. The number can never be precise because records may not have been archived and ship losses may not have made it into the paper," van Heest said.
The oldest shipwreck, van Heest explained, is from 1679 and is yet to be found -- a sailing ship loaded with furs en route from Lake Michigan to Niagara.
"One of the oldest shipwrecks found on Lake Michigan is a 9-foot sloop off South Haven, Michigan. Its design suggests a ship built in the first half of the 1800s," she said.
The most recent ship to sink to the lake's bottom was the freighter Carl Bradley, which took 33 of the 35 men aboard when it sank in 1958.
"Smaller pleasure crafts have been lost, the most recent in 2011 when a father and son pair were caught in a series of rough waves off Little Sable Point," van Heest said. "The boat sank in two minutes. Both lived because they wore life vests."
In February 1899, the John V. Moran steamship was trapped in ice and sunk 374 feet under the frigid Lake Michigan waters near Muskegon, Michigan. Van Heest and a team of divers explored the nearly intact ship.
Van Heest has documented more than 50 shipwrecks and has been featured on Discovery Channel. Her favorite shipwreck is an 1891 three-masted schooner, The Thomas Hume, which went down 20 miles southeast of Chicago.
"The ship is so intact and included so many artifacts that are often washed out of the other wrecks and buried in sand. Artifacts include clothing, shoes, cooking implements, tools and personal possessions of the crew."
Her book "Unsolved Mysteries: the Shipwreck Thomas Hume," details her research and discoveries.
"There are many books about Great Lakes shipwrecks, some written especially for kids," Van Heest said.
You can learn more about Lake Michigan shipwrecks, van Heest explained, by visiting the Chicago Maritime Museum, the Discovery Center in Milwaukee, the Wisconsin Maritime Museum, Museum of the Great Lakes in Toledo and the Michigan Maritime Museum in South Haven. Film festivals featuring documentaries about sunk ships are offered in Chicago, Milwaukee and Holland, Michigan. Van Heest also suggests learning to scuba dive; kids as young as 10 can take the necessary certification classes.
Check it outCook Memorial Public Library suggests these titles on shipwrecks:
• "The Christmas Tree Ship" by Jeanette Winter
• "The Christmas Tree Ship" written by Carol Crane
• "The Edmund Fitzgerald: Song of the Bell" written by Kathy-Jo Wargin
Books for young readers by Valerie van Heest:
• "Buckets and Belts: Evolution of the Great Lakes Self-Unloader"
• "Icebound! The Adventures of Young George Sheldon and the SS Michigan"