Michigan history holds within its memory the stories and dreams of all those who came before us, and many of those memories are closely guarded secrets buried deep within the waters surrounding our state. The lure of adventure, or wealth – or both – has called many the brave traveler to explore the waters of the Great Lakes. Fraught with peril, many of those journeys ended in tragedy and left behind them only questions about their fate. Mysteries unsolved, stories left untold, their tragic ends impress upon us how quickly our own fate can change.
In our last story, Wintermitten shared the history of the Mariners Church of Detroit and the sinking of the famous S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald.
But the mighty “Fitz” is but one of thousands of such tales of seafarers’ peril on the Great lakes. As inland seas, the Great Lakes are infamous for their hurricane force storms and hold in their strength the power to crush even the strongest of vessels, bringing ship and crew quickly to a watery grave below.
We are the only state in the country that touches four out of the five Great Lakes – Huron, Michigan, Superior and Erie – and the boundaries of the upper and lower peninsulas of Michigan are surrounded by over three thousand miles of fresh water coastline. In the depths of these mighty lakes lies all that remains of those who never finished their journeys.
From the SSEFO research website:
Approximately 6,000 shipwrecks have occurred on the Great Lakes with the death toll totaling upwards of 30,000 lives.
Many of these ships have disappeared under mysterious circumstances, often lying hidden for decades before their final whereabouts are discovered, and sometimes leaving behind little or no traces of their disappearance at all. Because of this, some believe that something more powerful than even a gale force storm may be at play, something strange and even…paranormal.
For decades, many have thought that the inland seas of the Great Lakes may actually have a mysterious, perhaps magnetic, force at work similar to that of the Bermuda Triangle. Calling it The Great Lakes Triangle, there are those that believe these mysterious disappearances may have been the result of some unknown force of nature yet unseen or discovered by science. So much mystery surrounds some of these events that their stories have made their way in to modern mythology and urban legend.
The triangle is said to have claimed not just ships, but airplanes and human lives. The compelling stories have attracted not only local curiosity but even reached more mainstream interest. In 1977, author Jay Gourley wrote The Great Lakes Triangle , and the widely viewed television series “In Search of…”, hosted by Leonard Nimoy of Star Trek fame, came to Michigan and the lakes to research the story. From “In Search of…The Great Lakes Triangle“:
“There is a body of water from which the cry of distress comes more often per square mile than any other body of water in the world. It is not the Devil’s Sea off Japan, the tumultuous waters of the Cape horn, nor the deadly calm of a Sargasso Sea. It is an area where the search and rescue capabilities have no equal – not the Bermuda Triangle, but another triangle, a triangle formed by the Great Lakes locked in the heart of industrial North America.
Too often the crack search and rescue units of Canada and the United States come back empty-handed. A ship or plane vanished for no apparent reason or [is] destroyed by forces no one can explain. An extraordinary statistic has been recently disclosed – fully one-third of all the unsolved American air and sea disasters take place in the Great Lakes Triangle…”
But even amidst the speculation and legends, the mysteries of the lost ships, downed flights and missing persons in the area around the Great Lakes remains, leaving a painful open-ended question for the families and survivors of those whose lives have been lost. Those families, and all those dedicated to recovering the wrecks and solving the mysteries have found an unexpected ally and resource in a world famous author.
Acclaimed novelist Clive Cussler has dedicated himself to finding answers to these mysteries. In addition to writing books that are read by 125 million fans in over 100 countries, Cussler is the founder and Chairman of the National Underwater & Marine Agency (NUMA). The agency’s goal is to find, recover and preserve not just the wreckage of lost ships, but maritime history, as well. From the NUMA website:
The National Underwater and Marine Agency (NUMA) is a 501-C3 non-profit, volunteer foundation dedicated to preserving our maritime heritage through the discovery, archaeological survey and conservation of shipwreck artifacts.
Our purpose is also to reinforce public appreciation of our marine past, present and future by initiating and supporting projects designed to uncover and explore historically significant shipwrecks before they are lost and gone forever.
Clive Cussler founded the agency in 1979 and he and his crew have had tremendous success in their work. The marine experts at NUMA, with help from volunteers, have discovered over sixty historical underwater shipwreck sites, including the Hattie Wells near South Haven, MI. The Hattie Wells schooner barge was found in Lake Michigan in 2010 by NUMA and the Michigan Shipwreck Research Associates (MSRA) in “well preserved” condition, after having been missing since its disappearance 1912. The ship was built by Stewart & Fitzgerald in 1867 in Port Huron, MI.
The Hattie Wells was found while the NUMA and MSRA crews were actually searching for Flight 2501, a downed commercial airliner missing since 1950. Cussler and his team were searching for remains of the wreckage or clues to the sudden disappearance of the plane, when they found the 1867 schooner. The plane disappeared off of radar under highly mysterious circumstances and has never been recovered.
On June 23, 1950 Northwest Airlines Flight 2501 left from La Guardia airport headed for Seattle with 55 passengers and a 3 person crew. As the flight was heading over Battle Creek, MI Captain Lind, the pilot of the DC-4, requested clearance to air traffic control to lower his altitude. The request was denied. That was the last communication with the fated passenger flight and the DC-4 went missing over Lake Michigan between Benton Harbor, MI and Milwaukee, WI, and was the worst aviation disaster in history at that time. The Holland, MI based MSRA, headed by Valerie and Jack van Heest describes what happened next:
On the other side of the lake, just before midnight Central Time, Northwest Radio at Milwaukee advised New York, Minneapolis and Chicago that Flight 2501 was overdue reporting in at Milwaukee. At that point, all Civil Aeronautics Administration radio stations attempted to contact the overdue flight on all frequencies, but to no avail. Northwest air traffic control alerted air-sea rescue facilities to stand by. Flight 2501 was missing!
The true fate of Flight 2501 remains a mystery to this day, and Cussler and the MSRA team continue the search. All that was ever found immediately following the disappearance of the airliner were bits of debris and some small, rather gruesome remains of the passengers on board. The tragic disappearance was shadowed and soon forgotten as the United States entered into the conflict in Korea. The researchers at NUMA and MSRA decided to team up to search for the wreckage in 2004 when Cussler read an article about MSRA’s search for the flight and in 2007 they began the search anew. The group held a memorial service for the surviving family members of those lost in the flight in 2010 and the search for 2501 continues. While actively seeking significant clues to the whereabouts of the Northwest airliner, they have found two shipwrecks at the deep bottom of the big lake, an 1887 vessel and another not yet identified.
The two teams have discovered the wreckage in Lake Michigan of the Joseph P. Farnan, lost at sea in 1889. The ship was headed north to Escanaba from St. Joseph when fire broke out on board after the crew had been battling rough seas and winds for many long hours. The entire crew was safely rescued, but the ship went down in flames and was never found, until now. The researchers have also found another ship in the deep waters, believed to be an historic 1830’s era vessel, but it remains to be identified.
The stories of peril on the open waters of the Great Lakes related above are but a mere few of the over six thousand shipwrecks known to have occurred. The severe storms of the inland seas surrounding our state have challenged even the most highly seasoned and experienced mariners throughout history and have claimed the lives of over 30,000 people – sometimes under mysterious and unexplained circumstances. Researchers, speculators, and surviving family members continue to seek answers to the untold mysteries behind many of these disappearances, and the voices of those who have perished continue to call to those who remain. For those who hear them, those voices are irresistible. And for those who dare brave the brilliant, beautiful waters of the lakes to bring forth their treasures and secrets, remember these words from author and explorer Clive Cussler:
The bottom line is that when the final curtain drops the only things we truly regret are the things we didn’t do. Or as an old grizzled treasure hunter put it to me over a beer in a waterfront saloon late one evening, “If it ain’t fun, it ain’t worth doin’. To those of you who seek lost objects of history, I wish you the best of luck. They’re out there, and they’re whispering.” ~ Clive Cussler