Shipwrecks of the Park

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My name is Ranger Kelly and today we are going to explore some of the shipwrecks along this shoreline and learn why this area earned the dubious name “The Shipwreck Coast of Lake Superior”. So if you’re ready, let’s get started. Along the Pictured rocks National Lakeshore, in the fall of each year, it’s not uncommon to have marine forecasts issued that can call for maximum potential wave height of up to 25 feet. This occurs a result of strong north or northwest winds that can create large waves over a distance of 160 miles until they reach the shoreline area represented by the blue bar. This 80 mile stretch of Lake Superior, known as the shipwreck coast, gets pounded by these waves and Pictured Rocks makes up the west half of the blue bar. Of the 45 recorded shipwrecks in the waters along the park, 28 or almost two-thirds occurred in September, October or November when these strong winds are prevalent. The other element contributing to the wrecks in this area is the thick, dense fog that can form swiftly. Today Spray falls is a popular kayak and boat destination but one of the most tragic shipwrecks occurred at this location in late October of 1856. The side-wheeler steamer Superior in heavy seas lurched off course. Attempts to lighten the load were unsuccessful and as she took on water the boiler fires were extinguished. Foundering on the rocks, passengers were washed overboard and had to swim in frigid waters to the lakeshore. Between 35 and 42 people perished in this wreck. Today this bell, which can be viewed in the museum at the Au Sable Light Station, is one of the few artifacts that remains from this tragedy. Walking from the lower Hurricane day use area to the Au Sable Light Station allows visitors to view the remains of three other shipwrecks. The Mary Jarecki, a wooden freight steamer heavily laden with iron ore, ran off its course and became lost in fog off the mouth of the Hurricane river before grounding ashore on July 4th of 1883. Today the remains may still be seen resting on the sandstone bottom just off the beach near the trail to the lighthouse. The long oak keelsons studded with iron nails are just below the surface. As you continue towards the lighthouse you can access a set of stairs to a sandy beach for the last third of the walk. From here you can see the remains of two ships, the Sitka and the Gale Staples. Because each of these ships, wooden bulk freighters, are almost identical in size, shape and type of construction, it’s tough to tell which piece belongs to which ship. The Sitka grounded in 1904 while the Gale Staples grounded in 1918. Both ships were able to get their crews to shore with no loss of life. As you continue your walk to the lighthouse you can enjoy views of this wreckage along the beach. With the invention of marine radios, gps, and radar the shipping on this big lake finally became much safer. The last recorded wrecks in the Pictured Rocks area happened in the late 1940s. I hope you get a chance to explore these when you visit Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.

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Duration:
4 minutes, 28 seconds

Explore some of the shipwrecks along Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.

 

Shipwrecks at Pictured Rocks


The shipwrecks of the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore area are nearly as well known as the rock fomations that give the area its name. Rock cliffs dominate much of the shoreline, but the shore marks the boundary between two very different environments: the land and the underwater world.

The underwater resources of the lakeshore are valuable because they are so representative of a wide range of vessels. They have also been relatively well preserved because they have been spared the human pressures of population and industry. It is the undisturbed quality of the park’s shipwrecks that has focused the attention of historians and sport divers here, and ultimately has resulted in creation of the Alger Underwater Preserve by the State of Michigan to ensure their further preservation and enjoyment. The following wreck descriptions are sequential from west to east and is not a total list of all wrecks in the area.
 

Smith Moore

After colliding with the James Pickands, this 230-foot wooden steam barge sank July 13, 1889, as it was being towed in by the M.M. Drake. The most dramatic and well-known wreck in the preserve, the Smith Moore rests just off Sand Point in about 95 feet of water with her deck at the 85 foot level. She is the most intact wreck in the area, offering experienced divers many hours of underwater exploration. (Buoyed)

Manhattan
After striking Grand Island, the 252-foot wooden hulled freighter sank October 26, 1903, after burning to the waterline in a freak accidental fire in the cabins. Her hull is largely intact with scattered timbers and the huge rudder. She rests on a rocky shelf in about 20 feet of water, protected by the island. (Buoyed)

Mary M. Scott
Also known as the Sandpiper, this 100-foot long wreck is the bottom of a schooner that was laden with iron ore from Marquette. The canal schooner went ashore November 2, 1870. She was named for the wife of one of her owners. The ship was 138 feet long, 26 feet wide, with a depth of 11 feet and weighed 361 tons. The wreck lies approximately 500 feet off the Sand Point channel buoy in about 15 feet of water amid constantly shifting sand.

George
Located near Mosquito Beach, the George was the victim of a typical fall gale. She was loaded with 1,330 tons of coal en route to Marquette when she ran into an intense snowstorm. Lying in 15 feet of water at the mouth of a cove, about 120 feet of the hull is visible. All eight crewmen and one woman survived by rowing a yawl to Grand Island after the 200-foot ship had its sails ripped off by the wind and ran aground on October 24, 1893.

 
Large waves batter a rocky coastline in a violent storm
Severe weather events are common on Lake Superior. Wave heights can build to 25 feet during extreme storm systems. Many ships sank along the coastline because of these extreme events. Today, weather can still pose a challenge to ships, boaters, and paddlers seeking to explore the park.

NPS Image

 

Superior

One of the most tragic of the Pictured Rocks accidents was the loss of this steamboat at Spray Falls on October 29, 1856. The 191-foot long side wheeler had two decks, with the upper one entirely for passengers. In heavy seas, she lurched off course. Attempts to lighten the load were unsuccessful and as she took on water the boiler fires were extinguished. Foundering on the rocks, passengers were washed overboard and had to swim in frigid water to the rocks. Survivors endured wind, cold, and snow, struggling several miles to the nearest habitation at Munising Bay and Grand Island. Between 35 and 42 people died in the wreck. Depth of the wreck is 10 to 30 feet; visibility is 30 to 50 feet.

Kiowa
Off Twelvemile Beach in about 40 feet of water lies the steel remains of the ocean-going steamer Kiowa, a World War I “laker.” About 80% of the ship’s hull and most of the machinery may still be seen at the site, though all of the superstructure is gone. The Kiowa was one of 498 ships of the “Frederickstad Design” built between 1917 and 1920. Heading down lake with a cargo of flax seed, it was caught in a gale and began taking on water. By December 1, 1929, she was helpless and fetched up in 30 feet of water before a strong northwest wind.

 
Wooden structure washed ashore along a beach. Iron nails are sticking out of the wood.
The remains of the Sitka and Gales Staples are visible during the summer months along the beach at Au Sable Point. Because the ships were much alike, it is difficult to identify which pieces belong to which ship. Lake Superior has smashed and mixed the wreck together into one big debris field.

NPS Photo

Mary Jarecki

The first wreck east of Twelvemile Beach is this wooden bulk freight steamer, victim of a July 4, 1883 stranding. The ship, heavily laden with iron ore, ran off its course and came ashore in fog off the mouth of Hurricane River. Today, the remains may still be seen resting on the bare sandstone bottom just outside the breakers near the trail to the lighthouse. The long oak keelsons, studded with iron treenails, are just above water. No lives were lost in the incident.

Sitka and Gale Staples

The Gale Staples was upbound on October 1, 1918, laden with coal for Port Arthur. Driven by high winds, she veered off course and grounded on the reef. All hands were eventually rescued. Pieces of these two ships can be seen on the beach just west of the Au Sable Light Station. Numerous other pieces of these wrecks are lying on the reef in shallow water.

The bones of the Sitka and Gale Staples are mingled at Au Sable Point. The two craft were much alike - both were double decked wooden bulk freighters. Each had two masts and were 272 and 277 feet in length, built in 1887 and 1888. The Sitka stranded on October 4, 1904, in heavy fog and high winds. Downbound and loaded with iron ore, the ship ran aground, filled with water and was abandoned in heavy seas. Lifesavers from Grand Marais rescued 17 men from the ship.

State law prohibits the recovery, altering, or destruction of abandoned property which is in, on, under, or over the bottom lands of the Great Lakes, including those within a Great Lakes bottom lands preserve. Shipwrecks lying on the surface are protected by federal law. Please leave these remnants of the past for others to enjoy.

Last updated: July 8, 2022

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