In the 1800s, the Great Lakes—Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario—were a hub of maritime activity. They were busy shipping routes, with people and cargo regularly shuffling between cities on the shores. But it wasn’t always smooth sailing. More than 6000 ships succumbed to the whims of the lakes; here are 11 of them.
1. The SS Edmund Fitzgerald // Lake Superior
Any Gordon Lightfoot fan is probably familiar with the wreck of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald. The ship plowed through towering waves to lead its sister ship, the SS Arthur M. Anderson, on a journey to deliver iron ore in November 1975. But the 25-foot waves were too much for the Edmund Fitzgerald, which snapped in two, sinking to the bottom of Lake Superior with its 29-person crew.
Though the ship has been found, the cause of its sinking remains a mystery. There are many theories: Some suggest the ship was overloaded; others propose it had its bow on top of one wave with the stern on another, causing the unsupported middle to split. Curiously, the Anderson encountered three giant waves that struck from the stern and continued in the direction of the Edmund Fitzgerald. This has led to speculation that rogue waves—defined as unpredictable waves that are twice as large as the surrounding swells—could have sunk the Edmund Fitzgerald.
2. The New Connecticut // Lake Erie
In September 1833, a woman named Mary Applebee planned to return home to Buffalo, New York, after visiting relatives in Ohio. Her nephew, a local ship captain, cautioned her to wait and return home on a new steamer that was almost finished. But she was impatient and instead booked passage on the schooner New Connecticut. When a storm sent the ship tumbling onto its side, the crew escaped, but there was no sign of Applebee.
Five days later, when a salvage crew righted the schooner, Applebee walked up the stairs and onto the deck. Her unexpected appearance was so shocking the sailors screamed in fright. She explained that she had become trapped below deck when the vessel rolled on its side. She spent nearly a week in waist-deep water, with just a wet cracker and an onion to sustain her [PDF]. Applebee, and the badly damaged ship, were brought back to the safety of shore.
3. The Western Reserve // Lake Superior
Built of steel, the SS Western Reserve was faster, lighter, and could carry more cargo than any other ship on the Great Lakes at that time. But on a fateful voyage across Lake Superior in August 1892, it suddenly cracked in half while moving through large waves. The 22 people on board, including the captain’s wife and three children, barely escaped into two lifeboats before the ship sank.
Shortly after being launched, one lifeboat capsized, with two of its five occupants making it to the second lifeboat. The crew rowed for hours. When only a mile away from land, the lake’s big waves finally tipped the lifeboat over, throwing all 19 people into the water. A solitary survivor made it to the beach.
4. The SS W.H. Gilcher // Lake Michigan
Only two months after the loss of the Western Reserve, its sister ship, the SS W.H. Gilcher, mysteriously disappeared. At 2:20 p.m. on October 28, 1892, the W.H. Gilcher sailed past Mackinaw, Michigan, and was never seen again. Days later, wreckage began to wash up on the shores of the Manitou Islands. Eventually, the bodies of two crewmen in life preservers were found on South Fox Island.
No one knows what exactly happened to the W.H. Gilcher, as the ship has not been found. A gale had spread over Lake Michigan that day, and a few ships around the islands thought they may have seen it. In the poor weather and dark of night, however, no one could say for sure.
5. The Helen Strong // Lake Erie
The Helen Strong was only 2 years old when it left Buffalo, New York, with a nearly full load of passengers and cargo bound for Toledo, Ohio, in November 1846. Its rudder was torn off and a steam pipe burst when the ship became caught in a sudden storm. With no power or steering, the ship was washed up against a 50-foot high rocky cliff, where it became lodged on rocks in the pounding surf.
In the pitch black, two crewmen dared to jump off the ship onto the cliff face, where they managed to grab tree roots. They climbed to the top and lowered a rope. Nearly 60 people climbed up the cliff in the middle of the stormy night. The morning light revealed people still trapped on the boat, so the rope was lowered again. Incredibly, only two people were lost in the wreck.
6. The SS G.P. Griffith // Lake Erie
As dawn broke over Lake Erie on June 17, 1850, the SS G.P. Griffith, carrying 326 passengers, caught fire. The crew sounded the fire alarm and turned the boat toward shore, which was roughly three miles away. Passengers came on deck, aware of the danger. But land—and safety—were in sight.
A half-mile from shore, the ship grounded on a sandbar. The fire spread quickly, and the crew told the passengers to save themselves. Panicked travelers jumped overboard in a vain attempt to reach the beach. The captain threw his family into the water, jumped in, and then disappeared under the waves with them. Only around 30 people were ultimately able to swim to shore. The remains of the ship, still burning, were eventually towed back to land.
7. The Goliath // Lake Huron
The Goliath, carrying a flammable cargo of shingles, lumber, and hay, was also loaded with about 180 kegs of blasting powder for its journey from Detroit to Lake Superior in September 1848. A fire started as it neared Saginaw Bay in Michigan, likely caused by sparks from the smokestack. The inferno quickly spread through the combustible cargo as the crew frantically tried to extinguish it.
About five miles from shore, the fire reached the hold containing the powder kegs. A massive explosion ensued, which was seen and felt for miles. Only the ship’s cook survived. Figuring the ship was doomed, he had lowered a small boat and fled, escaping just before the powder exploded.
8. The Island Queen // Lake Erie
As the Civil War raged across the United States, an island near Sandusky, Ohio, was used to house Confederate prisoners of war. In September 1864, a group of Confederates, led by a spy, hijacked two passenger steamers, the Philo Parsons and the Island Queen. They planned to capture the SS Michigan, which was guarding the prison island.
The spy—Major C. H. Cole—was known in the area as a wealthy merchant, and was invited aboard the Michigan. He planned to drug the wine that the officers would have with their dinner. But his plot was discovered. To escape, the Confederates scuttled the Island Queen and tried to flee to Canada on the Philo Parsons. They were within sight of land when Union forces sank their ship.
9. The Sunbeam // Lake Superior
The Sunbeam became caught in a storm while carrying 35 people across Lake Superior in August 1863. The weather overpowered the ship, which wasn’t able to keep its bow into the wind. After riding from trough to peak in the waves, the Sunbeam eventually rolled over onto its side and later sank. Many of the passengers and crew crowded into overloaded lifeboats.
With no room left, one of the sailors gave up his spot to a woman. He jumped into the water and tied himself to some floating wreckage, where he watched helplessly as the lifeboats tipped over, spilling their passengers into the lake. The sailor floated for nearly 18 hours until the waves washed him onto a ledge within some shoreline cliffs. He spent two days there, too exhausted to move, until a small boat sailing along the coast happened to spot him.
10. The Equinox // Lake Michigan
The Equinox, with 25 passengers and crew, was full of cargo and towing the schooner Emma A. Mays, when it was caught in a nighttime storm near Ludington, Michigan, in September 1875. Shortly after the tow-rope linking the two ships was suddenly cut, the Equinox rolled over onto its port side and sank. The Mays, under sail and not able to maneuver easily in the storm, continued to Chicago.
Two days later, a ship arrived in Chicago carrying Reuben Burr, the only survivor from the Equinox. He recalled how the ship had been taking on water when it rolled over unexpectedly. He and the cook made it onto floating wreckage, but after hours in the storm, the cook lost strength and was swept away. Burr was lucky to be found, still clinging to the wreckage, by a passing ship the next day.
11. The Chesapeake // Lake Erie
The Chesapeake was carrying about 45 passengers when it collided with another ship and began to slowly sink in August 1846. The captain ordered the ship to head toward land. But as the ship rode lower and lower in the water, it became apparent that the Chesapeake could not make shore.
There were not enough lifeboats for everyone, so the crew made multiple trips to ferry people to safety. One woman refused to board a lifeboat without her husband. To persuade her to go, he tossed their child on board, and mother followed. The Chesapeake sank as people climbed up the masts to wait for help. The husband, who had saved his wife and child, was last seen floating away on a piece of wreckage, one of 13 people who lost their lives that day.