10 Deep Facts About the Great Lakes

NASA // CC BY PUBLIC DOMAIN
NASA // CC BY PUBLIC DOMAIN

The Great Lakes of North America, which span 750 miles from east to west, form the largest fresh water system on Earth. Here are 10 facts about Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario.

1. LAKE SUPERIOR IS BY FAR THE BIGGEST AND DEEPEST.

The numbers for the world’s largest freshwater lake (in terms of surface area), which straddles the U.S.-Canada border and touches Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, are staggering: 31,700 square miles of surface water; 350 miles wide and 160 miles long; 2,726 miles of shoreline; an average depth of nearly 500 feet, with a maximum depth of 1,332 feet; and a volume of 2,900 cubic miles, more than enough to fill all the other Great Lakes combined.

2. ONTARIO AND ERIE ARE THE SMALLEST.

Lake Erie, which borders Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York, measures 241 miles across and 57 miles long, larger than Lake Ontario’s 193-mile-by-53-mile footprint. But Erie’s average depth is just 62 feet and has a volume of around 119 cubic miles, much smaller than Ontario’s average depth of 283 feet and volume of 395 cubic miles. The two lakes are connected by the 35-mile long Niagara River.

3. ONLY ONE OF THE LAKES IS LOCATED ENTIRELY IN THE U.S.

As its name suggests, Lake Michigan and its 1180 cubic miles of water, 22,300 square miles of surface water, and 1600 miles of shoreline is the only one of the Great Lakes that lies entirely within American borders. It is the second-largest of the Great Lakes by volume and is connected to Lake Huron by the Straits of Mackinac between Michigan’s upper and lower peninsulas.

4. YOU CAN TAKE A 6500-MILE DRIVE AROUND THE LAKES.

The Great Lakes Commission established the Circle Tour in 1988 as a scenic tourist drive around the five lakes and through the eight states (and Ontario) that make up the GLC. Just to navigate Lake Michigan’s 900-mile Circle Tour alone would take approximately 14½ hours without any stops.

5. A FIRE PAVED THE WAY FOR MASSIVE ENVIRONMENTAL REFORMS.

A fire on the Cuayahoga River in June 1969, and the iconic image that was published thereafter, helped spur a number of environmental regulations aimed at cleaning up the waterway that feeds Lake Erie, as well as America’s lakes and rivers in general. Amendments to the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, known as the Clean Water Act, were enacted in 1972 regulating water pollution and discharge, and gave the Environmental Protection Agency broader pollution control powers. In addition, the United States and Canada signed the Great Lakes Water Quality Act in 1972 to “restore and protect the waters of the Great Lakes.”

6. THE LAKES CONTAIN MORE THAN 35,000 ISLANDS.

Of the thousands of islands scattered throughout the lakes, the largest is Manitoulin in Lake Huron. It is the largest freshwater lake island in the world at 1068 square miles and has a population of around 12,600. Georgian Bay, also on Lake Huron, includes about 17,500 islands, while the archipelago in the St. Lawrence River known as the Thousand Islands actually houses around 1,800 islands.

7. EACH LAKE NAME IS DERIVED FROM EITHER NATIVE AMERICAN LANGUAGES OR FRENCH.

Lake Erie is named after the Erie Tribe, which occupied the southern shores of the lake. Michigan comes from a French version of the Ojibwa word michigami. Huron is named for the Huron tribe. The Iroquois lent their language to the naming of Ontario, which means “beautiful lake.” French explorers called the great body of water above Lake Huron “le lac superieur,” or upper lake.

8. SHIPPING STILL DOMINATES.

The Canadian and U.S. lake fleets, made up of carriers, tankers, bulk freighters (“lakers”), tugs, and barges, haul upwards of 125 million tons of cargo a year. About 40 percent of the cargo is iron ore and other mined products like coal, salt, and stone, while another 40 percent is wheat, corn, oats, soybeans, and other agricultural products. Other cargo includes steel, scrap metal, iron products, fuel, and chemicals.

9. THE LARGEST FISH IN THE LAKES CAN WEIGH OVER 200 POUNDS.

Fishing is a revered pastime on the Great Lakes, one of the largest freshwater fisheries in the world. Some of the most common catches include trout, salmon, walleye, perch, herring, and bass. Lake sturgeon are the biggest species of fish found in the lakes, and they can weigh over 200 lbs. 

10. LAKE SUPERIOR HAS CLAIMED A NUMBER OF SHIPS AND LIVES.

While the wreck of the famed SS Edmund Fitzgerald on Lake Superior has generated a hit song, memorials, and conspiracies surrounding its sinking, a number of other commercial ships have sunk and perished through the years in the area around Whitefish Bay near Whitefish Point, Michigan. A wooden steamer called the Vienna of Cleveland sank in 1892 on Lake Superior and is a popular spot for divers; the Comet also sank on Lake Superior and took 11 lives with it in 1875; the John M. Osborn collided with the Alberta in 1884 and drowned four men; and on just its second voyage, the SS Cyprus sank near Deer Park, Michigan in 1907, killing 22 of its 23 crewmembers.

The dangerous stretch of water on southern Lake Superior between Munising, Michigan and Whitefish Point has been called the “Graveyard of the Great Lakes,” and “Shipwreck Coast,” as hundreds of ships have been lost in the area. It is estimated that 6000 ships have sank in the Great Lakes, with a loss of nearly 30,000 lives.

Note: The piece has been amended to include lake sturgeon as the Great Lakes' largest species of fish.

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The U.S.-Canada Border Runs Directly Through This Library

Though the Haskell Free Library and Opera House might not be as well known as the Grand Canyon or the Statue of Liberty, it's undoubtedly one of America's most unique tourist attractions. Completed in 1904, the building is stationed directly between Stanstead, Quebec, and Derby Line, Vermont, with the official U.S.-Canada borderline running right across the library's floor.

Martha Stewart Haskell and her son, Colonel Horace Stewart Haskell, both Canadians, built the building as a tribute to Mrs. Haskell’s late husband, Carlos. The family hoped that citizens from both countries would use it as a “center for learning and cultural enrichment,” according to the official Haskell Free Library website.

The Haskell is divided between the two countries. While the library’s official entrance is on the U.S. side of the building, most of the books are on the Canadian side. The opera house is similarly split, with most of its seats in the U.S. and its stage in Canada. As Atlas Obscura reported, it is often said that the Haskell is the only library in the U.S. with no books, and the only opera house in the country with no stage.

U.S. Border Patrol Agent Andrew Mayer speaks to Nancy Rumery as he stands on the Canadian side of a line on the floor of the Haskell Free Library and Opera House that marks the border between the U.S. March 22, 2006 in Derby Line, Vermon
Joe Raedle, Getty Images

Passports and other forms of identification aren’t required to cross from country to country in the library, though the Haskell’s website notes that the border inside the "building is real and it is enforced.” Visitors are expected to return to their side of the border after a visit; if they don’t, they risk possible detention and fines.

Even beyond the building's unique position, library director Nancy Rumery told CTV News that Haskell staffers—Canadian and American alike—consider the institution to be like any other library in the world.

"We're just trying to be the best library we can, and our community is made up of people from two different countries," she said. "We don't think of it in that big symbolic way that I think a lot of people do. These are all our neighbors and we do our very best to help them on their life-long learning journey."

This article originally ran in 2016.

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