THE MICHIGAN TRIANGLEWe’re all familiar with the ‘Bermuda Triangle’ and similar areas around the world which seem to be home to mysterious phenomenon.
Fewer people are familiar with the ‘Lake Michigan Triangle’ even though it has been responsible for thousands of shipwrecks as well as mysterious disappearances of aircraft.
According to a 2007 report, there are estimated to be six to ten thousand shipwrecks in the Great Lakes, three thousand in Lake Michigan and three hundred in Lake Michigan’s southern basin, including the first Great Lakes submarine which sank in the mid 1800s.
In order to understand the importance of the Great lakes and Lake Michigan in particular we need to know a little more about it.
About 14,000 years ago, the glacier that occupied what is now Lake Michigan began to pull back from the area, gouging out a basin which quickly filled with water.
Today, 140 centuries later, Lake Michigan is the only one of the Great Lakes wholly within the borders of the United States. It has a surface area of 22,400 square miles making it the largest lake entirely within one country by surface area, and the fifth largest lake in the world. Together, the Great Lakes hold 20 percent of the world's surface fresh water.
As our nation grew and expanded westward the Great Lakes system became an important route for moving goods to the growing country as well as shipping the abundant raw materials of the new territory back east for refining and processing. First the limitless forests of Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois and Minnesota supplied the wood to build the new cities and towns, then the discovery of vast deposits of limestone, iron ore, copper, coal and salt was shipped to support the burgeoning industrial revolution.
Since the earliest settlers began drifting westward, the Great Lakes have served as a major highway and with the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959, the system has provided access by oceangoing deep-draft vessels to the great industrial and agricultural heartland of the North American continent.
But with growth comes growing pains.
Because of the climate, all five lakes are subject to sudden, violent storms and blinding fog which can instantly cripple navigation.
One other disaster waiting to happen was the fact that the whistle signals used by ships to navigate when vision is limited are different for ocean-going vessels and lake ships. In fact, in the early days some of the signals were exactly the opposite. Two blasts of the ship’s horn meant “I am attempting to pass you on the right” if you were an ocean-going captain, but for lake captains it meant, “I am trying to pass you on the left.”
It’s pretty easy to see the danger involved in that, but overall, it was the weather which caused the most losses.
While every inch of the Great Lakes pose threats to shipping, the Lake Superior shipwreck coast from Grand Marais, Michigan to Whitefish Point has become known as the "Graveyard of the Great Lakes" and the area known as the Michigan Triangle is the most deadly of all.
The Michigan Triangle starts from the town of Ludington to Benton Harbor in Michigan then stretches across Lake Michigan to Manitowoc, Wisconsin; the final side connects Manitowoc back to Ludington.
The first recorded known ship to navigate the Great Lakes was the "Griffon," a little vessel of about sixty tons, built by the French explorer, La Salle.
In early September 1679 the little ship left Green Bay loaded with furs that had been purchased from the Indians and was never heard from afterward, no doubt having foundered in a gale with her entire crew.
Other recent sinking’s include
- The SS Henry Steinbrenner, flooded after cargo hatch covers were lost during storm on May 11, 1953. 14 of 31 crew members died
- The SS Carl D. Bradley, which split in half during a storm on November 18, 1958. 33 of 35 crew members died.
- The SS Cedarville, which collided with the ocean-going Topdalsfjord on May 7, 1965. 10 of 35 crew members died.
- The SS Daniel J. Morrell, which split in half during a storm on November 29, 1966. 28 of 29 crew men died.
One of the last great tragedies was the Edmund Fitzgerald. While traveling on Lake Superior during a gale, on November 10, 1975, the Fitzgerald sank suddenly in waters 17 miles from the entrance of Whitefish Bay at a depth of 530 feet. The Fitzgerald sank without sending any distress signals. Its crew of 29 perished in the sinking with no bodies being recovered. When the wreck was found In May 1976, , it was discovered that the Fitzgerald had broken in two.
The sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald is the most famous disaster in the history of Great Lakes shipping. The disaster was the subject of Gordon Lightfoot's 1976 hit song, "The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald".
The approximately six to ten thousand other ships which met watery graves on the Great Lakes have become the stuff of legends and heroes and the subject of folktales.
I recall many pleasant summer afternoons in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, watching the loaded ore boats plying the waters of the Detroit River as my grandfather told me stories of the ‘old days’.
Born in 1875, he spent part of his youth in the late 1890’s as a deck hand on a ship carrying iron ore from Minnesota to Cleveland ports.
These ships which towered as high as three stories above the water when empty would slowly lumber past, filled to capacity, with their decks barely above the waves.
One memorable episode occurred on his first trip in late autumn of 1893 toward the end of the shipping season. As an inexperienced ‘newbie’ he was assigned the ‘ice watch’. This seemed like a simple job, all that was required was to spend the night walking the perimeter of the deck, continually looking down at the water line to watch for growing ice deposits on the hull.
It seems that under certain conditions, ice will quickly begin to form on the hull and the action of the waves cause it to creep slowly upwards. This phenomenon, called ‘Ice Devils’ could eventually capsize or even sink the loaded ship.
Because ice ’floats’ with almost 7/8 of it’s mass under water, it could slowly and inexorably drag these monster ships to a watery grave if I was undetected and allowed to grow.
As a rookie seaman he thought the other sailors were playing a joke on him when they assigned him to watch for ‘Ice Devils”. Sort of like asking the new mechanic to get a left-handed monkey wrench or a recruit airman to fetch a ‘sky hook‘.
His nonchalance came to a sudden end when another of the ice-watchers reported Ice Devils on the hull and the captain immediately ordered the helmsman to head for the nearest port. Obviously they made it safely, but not before the ship had been dragged down to the point that waves were breaking over the deck.
Once in port he, along with other crew members spent the rest of the night chipping the ice from the hull in order to resume their voyage the next day.
A lesson he never forgot.
Today, these freighters still make their ponderous journey across these great bodies of water with little or no recognition by most of us as to their worth. Modern technology and improvements in weather prediction have gone a long way toward making their journey safer, but danger and death still lurk in every wave and behind every bank of fog.
And the Michigan Triangle waits patiently for it’s next victims.