8 Famous Shipwrecks on Lake Michigan

On a clear day, the murky waters of Lake Michigan seem to open up, and a world of shipwrecks below the surface is revealed. Out of an estimated 6000 maritime disasters on the Great Lakes, Lake Michigan played host to 1500 shipwrecks. (To this day, Great Lakes commerce remains a dangerous business; the lakes are unpredictable, massive, and unforgiving.) Here are just eight of the famous shipwrecks that can be found at the bottom of the lake.


The sinking of the Lady Elgin on September 8, 1860 resulted in the most open water deaths in the history of the Great Lakes. During a strong gale, the 252-foot wooden hulled steamship was rammed by a much smaller vessel, the 129-foot schooner Augusta, at a speed of 11 knots. Though the Augusta’s second mate had reportedly spotted the Lady Elgin half an hour before the collision, the schooner did not correct its course until just 10 minutes before impact.

The captain of the Augusta sailed away, believing that his schooner had in fact sustained more damage than the sturdy steamer, and according to the clerk of the Lady Elgin, at the moment of impact there was music and dancing in the forward cabin. But the Augusta had torn a hole in the port side of the Lady Elgin. Fifty cows in the cargo hold were pushed over the side in order to lighten the ship, while appliances and other heavy items were moved in an attempt to bring the gash left by the Augusta above the water level. A lifeboat was lowered, but not secured, and it floated away before passengers could board it.

All told, over 300 people lost their lives in the disaster. As a result, a law was passed a few years later mandating that all ships crossing the Great Lakes must have running lights. The wreck of the Lady Elgin was largely forgotten until the mid-1970s, when a shipwreck enthusiast named Harry Zych began searching for it, and discovered the wreck in 1989. Today, the majority of the shipwreck lies several miles off the Illinois coast in four main wreckage sites, which can be explored by the public, with permission from Zych.


Between 1927 and 1949, the 639-foot SS Carl D. Bradley was the largest ship on the Great Lakes. As the “Queen of the Lakes” (the term used for the longest ship on the lakes), it was an engineering marvel—the largest and longest self-unloading freighter of its era. The Carl Bradley served as an icebreaker as well as a freighter used to haul limestone from Lake Superior and Lake Huron to Lake Michigan’s deepwater ports. In 1957, the Carl Bradley collided with another ship, the MV White Rose, on the St. Clair River, resulting in damage to the hull.

This structural damage is said to have contributed to the disaster that befell the ship and its crew in 1958. On the evening of November 18, the Carl Bradley was returning from a delivery in Gary, Indiana, heading north in upper Lake Michigan, when a massive gale-force storm hit. With winds reaching up to 65 miles per hour, and waves up to 20 feet tall, the storm battered the massive freighter until around 5:30 p.m., when the hull began cracking in two. Despite three radio calls of Mayday before the power lines were severed, the Carl Bradley went down before a rescue attempt could be mounted. Only two out of its 35 crewmen survived.

In 1959, the wreck of the Bradley was discovered using sonar technology by the Army Corps of Engineers, sitting 360 feet under the water. The discovery did little to answer the question of exactly how the huge ship sunk. The two survivors of the wreck claimed that they witnessed the ship break in two, but the sonar imaging did not confirm this claim. It wasn’t until 1997 that this claim was verified. Two maritime writers and adventurers took a submersible down to view the wreck, bringing with them one of the survivors, Watchman Frank Mays. They were greeted by two separate pieces of the ship, lodged upright in the mud, 90 feet apart.


The Alpena was a Great Lakes steamboat that conveyed people and supplies throughout the Midwest beginning in 1866. The ship was notable for its twin 24-foot side wheels and partially visible engine. No one knows where the ship’s final resting place actually is, but if the wreck is ever located, these distinctive features will help identify it.

Weather patterns on Lake Michigan are notoriously unpredictable, and it was a sudden storm that would come to be called “The Big Blow” that sunk the Alpena in 1880 (not to be confused with another “Big Blow” on the lakes in 1913). When the ship left Grand Haven, Michigan October 15 at 10 p.m. laden with passengers and a cargo of apples, en route to Chicago 108 miles away, the weather was perfect—calm and sunny, with temperatures ranging from 60 to 70 degrees. Once the vessel was underway, the crew noted a change in the winds, indicating a possible storm. The steamer’s veteran captain apparently figured that the Alpena would reach Chicago before the worst of it hit. A few hours later, he was proven fatally wrong.

By 3 a.m., the temperature had dropped to below zero and gale-force winds along with snow and ice began hammering the lake. The Alpena was reportedly spotted at dawn struggling in storm-tossed waves. The next time she was sighted, the ship had capsized. Only after the storm abated was the extent of the devastation clear: The steamer had been battered so badly by the storm that the ship's wreckage, as well as the bodies of its victims, were spread across 70 miles of beaches.

Over 90 ships went down during “The Big Blow” on Lake Michigan. The Alpena left no survivors and no trace of its present whereabouts.


One of the largest wooden ships ever constructed for use on the Great Lakes, the SS Appomattox measured 319 feet, featured a sturdy hull and had a massive triple expansion steam engine. The ship hauled iron ore and coal to ports all over the Midwest until a stroke of bad luck befell her on the night of November 2, 1905. Loaded with a full cargo hold of coal off the coast of Wisconsin, the huge wooden steamer was blinded by smog from the busy port of Milwaukee. As a result, the Appomattox ran aground. Despite two weeks of effort to free her, the ship remained stuck and eventually abandoned. Today, the Appomattox sits in 15 to 20 feet of water, 150 yards out from the beach in Shorewood, Wisconsin, near Milwaukee, and remains remarkably intact. The wreck is a popular dive site and a living reminder of the perils of shipping on Lake Michigan.


The schooner Rouse Simmons is one of the most legendary shipwrecks in the history of Lake Michigan commerce. The 123.5-foot ship was christened in 1868, a point in the history of Great Lakes shipping when sails were still the dominant form of power, soon to be eclipsed by steamers. The Rouse Simmons spent several decades traveling the Lakes in the service of prominent Midwestern lumber barons. After years of crisscrossing the perilous Great Lakes waterways, the schooner was in desperate need of repairs at the turn of the century, by which point the Rouse Simmons had joined about two dozen other ships in hauling Christmas trees from Michigan to Chicago during the holiday season. The Rouse Simmons remains the best-remembered of these “Christmas tree ships.” The gregarious captain Herman Schuenemann would sell trees off his deck in the port of Chicago, to the delight of countless families. On Friday, November 22, 1912, the schooner left the dock at Thompson, Michigan, carrying thousands of Christmas trees in its holds and on its decks.

What happened when this Christmas tree ship left port is not exactly known. What is known is that a powerful November gale caused the ship to founder, possibly due to its poor condition and heavy load. None of the crew survived, and Christmas trees continued to wash up on the shores of Lake Michigan in the following weeks. The loss of the Rouse Simmons heralded the end of the schooner era on Lake Michigan. The ship has spawned numerous legends and ghost stories, and its legacy is celebrated every December, when the Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw makes a ceremonial run from Michigan to Chicago to deliver Christmas trees to the less fortunate.

For years, the location of the wreck remained a mystery. In fact, its discovery in 1971 was an accident. A local scuba diver named Gordon Kent Bellrichard was using sonar to search the bottom of Lake Michigan near Two Rivers, Wisconsin for the wreck of the Vernon, a huge steamer that sunk in 1887. Instead, he came upon the three-masted Rouse Simmons, resting well-preserved in the mud in 172 feet of water. The wreck had eluded searchers and divers for decades and can now be explored six miles northeast of Rawley Point, Wisconsin.


The SS Anna C. Minch was a 380-foot steel steamer built in 1903 in Cleveland, Ohio. The steamer fell victim to one of the worst winter storms in the history of Lake Michigan and the Midwest as a whole—the Armistice Day Blizzard, which took place on November 11, 1940 and claimed three freighters, including the Anna Minch. The storm brought winds of at least 80 miles per hour along with 20-foot waves on the Lake. One theory is that the Anna Minch collided with the William B. Davock, another ship that later sunk or may have just sunk in the storm. Rescue attempts continued for three days but, nevertheless, the Anna Minch went down with all hands. The massive steamer split in two, and lies in the waters of Lake Michigan to this day, serving as a popular dive site. The two sections of the ship sit close together, one and a half miles south of Pentwater, Michigan in about 35 to 45 feet of water.

7. L.R. DOTY

The L.R. Doty, a 291-foot steamer, first set sail around the Great Lakes in 1893. She was one of the last wooden steamships to see service on the Great Lakes, as steel had become the industry standard for new vessels. The vessel had a steel-reinforced hull, which was rated A1*, the highest possible grade for a Lake vessel, by insurance association the Inland Lloyds. In addition, she had a massive and powerful engine, but she did not have electricity or modern communication technology. In spite of its sturdiness, the L.R. Doty was no match for the ferocious storm of October 25, 1898. Ships all over the lake were smashed, the Chicago boardwalk was destroyed, and the Milwaukee breakwall was broken. The Doty broke up, taking down its entire crew and cargo. The ship remained the largest wooden shipwreck unaccounted for in Lake Michigan until it was finally discovered in 2010, 112 years after sinking.


The Niagara was built in 1846 in Buffalo, New York for service on the Great Lakes transporting both passengers and goods. The massive side-wheeled steamboat was considered one of the finest steamers of its era. On September 24, 1856, at around 6:00 p.m., the steamship caught fire in the area of the engine room. The exact cause of the fire is uncertain, but the prevailing theory is that some flammable cargo down in the hold was the cause. Many passengers and crew were able to jump overboard and were later rescued by nearby ships; however, out of the 300 passengers on board, 60 perished and the entire cargo was lost to the Lake. A testament to the treacherous nature of Lake Michigan, the Niagara sank only a mile from shore, as the Captain made a desperate run for dry land. The wreck is another popular dive site, with the bulk of the wreck lying in 55 feet of water near Belgium, Wisconsin, but it can be dangerous; two divers almost died a couple years ago exploring it.

John MacDougall, Getty Images
Stolpersteine: One Artist's International Memorial to the Holocaust
John MacDougall, Getty Images
John MacDougall, Getty Images

The most startling memorial to victims of the Holocaust may also be the easiest to miss. Embedded in the sidewalks of more than 20 countries, more than 60,000 Stolpersteine—German for “stumbling stones”—mark the spots where victims last resided before they were forced to leave their homes. The modest, nearly 4-by-4-inch brass blocks, each the size of a single cobblestone, are planted outside the doorways of row houses, bakeries, and coffee houses. Each tells a simple yet chilling story: A person lived here. This is what happened to them.

Here lived Hugo Lippers
Born 1878
Arrested 11/9/1938 — Altstrelitzer prison
Deported 1942 Auschwitz

The project is the brainchild of the German artist Gunter Demnig, who first had the idea in the early 1990s as he studied the Nazis' deportation of Sinti and Roma people. His first installations were guerrilla artwork: According to Reuters, Demnig laid his first 41 blocks in Berlin without official approval. The city, however, soon endorsed the idea and granted him permission to install more. Today, Berlin has more than 5000.

Demnig lays a Stolpersteine.
Artist Gunter Demnig lays a Stolpersteine outside a residence in Hamburg, Germany in 2012.
Patrick Lux, Getty Images

The Stolpersteine are unique in their individuality. Too often, the millions of Holocaust victims are spoken of as a nameless mass. And while the powerful memorials and museums in places such as Berlin and Washington, D.C. are an antidote to that, the Stolpersteine are special—they are decentralized, integrated into everyday life. You can walk down a sidewalk, look down, and suddenly find yourself standing where a person's life changed. History becomes unavoidably present.

That's because, unlike gravestones, the stumbling stones mark an important date between a person’s birth and death: the day that person was forced to abandon his or her home. As a result, not every stumbling stone is dedicated to a person who was murdered. Some plaques commemorate people who fled Europe and survived. Others honor people who were deported but managed to escape. The plaques aim to memorialize the moment a person’s life was irrevocably changed—no matter how it ended.

The ordinariness of the surrounding landscape—a buzzing cafe, a quaint bookstore, a tree-lined street—only heightens that effect. As David Crew writes for Not Even Past, “[Demnig] thought the stones would encourage ordinary citizens to realize that Nazi persecution and terror had begun on their very doorsteps."

A man in a shop holding a hammer making a Stolpersteine.
Artisan Michael Friedrichs-Friedlaender hammers inscriptions into the brass plaques at the Stolpersteine manufacturing studio in Berlin.
Sean Gallup, Getty Images

While Demnig installs every single Stolpersteine himself, he does not work alone. His project, which stretches from Germany to Brazil, relies on the research of hundreds of outside volunteers. Their efforts have not only helped Demnig create a striking memorial, but have also helped historians better document the lives of individuals who will never be forgotten.

Henry Guttmann, Getty Images
14 Facts About Mathew Brady
Henry Guttmann, Getty Images
Henry Guttmann, Getty Images

When you think of the Civil War, the images you think of are most likely the work of Mathew Brady and his associates. One of the most successful early photographers in American history, Brady was responsible for bringing images of the Civil War to a nation split in two—a project that would ultimately be his undoing. Here are some camera-ready facts about Mathew Brady.


Most details of Brady’s early life are unknown. He was born in either 1822 or 1823 to Andrew and Julia Brady, who were Irish. On pre-war census records and 1863 draft forms Brady stated that he was born in Ireland, but some historians speculate he changed his birthplace to Johnsburg, New York, after he became famous due to anti-Irish sentiment.

Brady had no children, and though he is believed to have married a woman named Julia Handy in 1851, there is no official record of the marriage.


When he was 16 or 17, Brady followed artist William Page to New York City after Page had given him some drawing lessons. But that potential career was derailed when he got work as a clerk in the A.T. Stewart department store [PDF] and began manufacturing leather (and sometimes paper) cases for local photographers, including Samuel F.B. Morse, the inventor of Morse Code.

Morse, who had learned the early photographic method of creating Daguerreotypes from Parisian inventor Louis Daguerre in 1839, brought the method back to the United States and opened a studio in 1840. Brady was one of his early students.


Brady eventually took what he learned from Morse and opened a daguerreotype portrait studio at the corner of Broadway and Fulton Street in New York in 1844, earning the nickname “Brady of Broadway.” His renown grew due to a mix of his knack for enticing celebrities to sit for his camera—James Knox Polk and a young Henry James (with his father, Henry James Sr.) both sat for him—as well as a flair for the dramatic: In 1856, he placed an ad in the New York Daily Tribune urging readers to sit for a portrait that warned, “You cannot tell how soon it may be too late.”

His rapidly-expanding operation forced him to open a branch of his studio at 625 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., in 1849, and then move his New York studio uptown to 785 Broadway in 1860.


In 1850, Brady published The Gallery of Illustrious Americans, a collection of lithographs based on his daguerreotypes of a dozen famous Americans (he had intended to do 24, but due to costs, that never happened). The volume, and a feature profile [PDF] in the inaugural 1851 issue of the Photographic Art-Journal that described Brady as the “fountain-head” of a new artistic movement, made him a celebrity even outside of America. “We are not aware that any man has devoted himself to [the Daguerreotype art] with so much earnestness, or expended upon its development so much time and expense," the profile opined. "He has merited the eminence he has acquired; for, from the time he first began to devote himself to it, he has adhered to his early purpose with the firmest resolution, and the most unyielding tenacity.” Later that year, at the Crystal Palace Exhibition in London, Brady was awarded one of three gold medals for his daguerreotypes.


The one that got away was William Henry Harrison—he died only a month after his inauguration in 1841.


When Abraham Lincoln campaigned for president in 1860, he was dismissed as an odd-looking country bumpkin. But Brady’s stately portrait of the candidate, snapped after he addressed a Republican audience at Cooper Union in New York, effectively solidified Lincoln as a legitimate candidate in the minds of the American populace. (After he was elected, Lincoln supposedly told a friend, “Brady and the Cooper Union speech made me president.”) It was one of the first times such widespread campaign photography was used to support a presidential candidate.


A researcher holding one of America's most priceless negatives, the glass plate made by famous civil war photographer Mathew Brady of Abraham Lincoln in 1865 just before he was assassinated.
Three Lions, Getty Images

On February 9, 1864, Lincoln sat for a portrait session with Anthony Berger, the manager of Brady’s Washington studio. The session yielded both images of Lincoln that would go on the modern iterations of the $5 bill.

The first, from a three-quarter length portrait featuring Lincoln seated and facing right, was used on the bill design from 1914 to 2000. When U.S. currency was redesigned that year, government officials chose another image Berger took at Brady’s studio of Lincoln. This time, the president is seen facing left with his head turned more to the left.

According to Lincoln historian Lloyd Ostendorf, when the president was sitting for portraits, “Whenever Lincoln posed, a dark melancholy settled over his features. He put on what Mrs. Lincoln called his ‘photographer’s face.’ There is no camera study which shows him laughing, for such an attitude, unfortunately, was impossible when long exposures were required.”


At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Brady decided to use his many employees and his own money to attempt to make a complete photographic record of the conflict, dispatching 20 photographers to capture images in different war zones. Alexander Gardner and Timothy H. O’Sullivan were both in the field for Brady. Both of them eventually quit because Brady didn’t give individual credit.

Brady likely did take photos himself on battlefields like Bull Run and Gettysburg (although not necessarily during the actual battle). The photographer later boasted, “I had men in all parts of the army, like a rich newspaper.”


Brady's eyes had plagued him since childhood—in his youth, he was reportedly nearly blind, and he wore thick, blue-tinted glasses as an adult. Brady's real reason for relying less and less on his own expertise might have been because of his failing eyesight, which had started to deteriorate in the 1850s.


War photographer Mathew Brady's buggy was converted into a mobile darkroom and travelling studio, or, Whatizzit Wagon, during the American Civil War.
Mathew B Brady, Getty Images

The group of Brady photographers that scoured the American north and south to capture images of the Civil War traveled in what became known as “Whatizzit Wagons,” which were horse-drawn wagons filled with chemicals and mobile darkrooms so they could get close to battles and develop photographs as quickly as possible.

Brady’s 1862 New York gallery exhibit, "The Dead of Antietam,” featured then-unseen photographs of some of the 23,000 victims of the war’s bloodiest day, which shocked American society. “Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war," a New York Times reviewer wrote. "If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our door-yards and along the streets, he has done something very like it.”


Brady and his associates couldn't just wander out onto the battlefield with cameras—the photographer needed to obtain permission. So he set up a portrait session with Winfield Scott, the Union general in charge of the Army. The story goes that as he photographed the general—who was posed shirtless as a Roman warrior—Brady laid out his plan to send his fleet of photographers to tell the visual story of the war unlike any previous attempts in history. Then the photographer gifted the general some ducks. Scott was finally convinced, and he approved Brady’s plan in a letter to General Irvin McDowell. (Scott's Roman warrior portrait is, unfortunately, now lost.)


Brady’s first foray into documenting the Civil War was the First Battle of Bull Run. Though he had approved of Brady's plan, General McDowell did not appreciate the photographers' presence during the battle.

Brady himself was supposedly near the front lines when the fighting began, and quickly became separated from his companions. During the battle, he was forced to take shelter in nearby woods, and slept there overnight on a bag of oats. He eventually met back up with the Army and made his way to Washington, where rumors swelled that his equipment caused a panic that was responsible for the Union’s defeat at the battle. “Some pretend, indeed, that it was the mysterious and formidable-looking instrument that produced the panic!” one observer noted. “The runaways, it is said, mistook it for the great steam gun discharging 500 balls a minute, and took to their heels when they got within its focus!”


Before, after, and occasionally during the Civil War, Brady and Co. also photographed members of the Confederate side, such as Jefferson Davis, P. G. T. Beauregard, Stonewall Jackson, Albert Pike, James Longstreet, James Henry Hammond, and Robert E. Lee after he returned to Richmond following his surrender at Appomattox Court House. “It was supposed that after his defeat it would be preposterous to ask him to sit,” Brady said later. “I thought that to be the time for the historical picture.”


Union troops with a field gun during the American Civil War.
Mathew Brady, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

“My wife and my most conservative friends had looked unfavorably upon this departure from commercial business to pictorial war correspondence,” Brady told an interviewer in 1891. Their instincts were right.

Brady invested nearly $100,000 of his own money in the Civil War project in hopes that the government would buy his photo record of the war after it was all said and done. But once the Union prevailed, a public reeling from years of grueling conflict showed no interest in Brady's grim photos.

After the financial panic of 1873 he declared bankruptcy, and he lost his New York studio. The War Department eventually bought over 6000 negatives from Brady’s collection—which are now housed in the National Archives—for only $2840 total.

Despite being responsible for some of the most iconic images of the era, Brady never regained his financial footing, and he died alone in New York Presbyterian Hospital in 1896 after being hit by a streetcar.


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