4 Spectacular Shipwrecks You Can Dive Near Chicago

A diver explores the Wells Burt, one of the most famous shipwrecks off the coast of Chicago.

In the late 1800s, Chicago transformed into one of the busiest shipping ports in the world—it was the destination of more than 2000 lumber-carrying boats per year. Because of the uniquely volatile weather of the Great Lakes, its popularity also increased the number of shipwrecks. Altogether, more than 6000 boats and 30,000 mariners have perished along the Third Coast. Keith Pearson, the main captain at Double Action Dive Charters, estimates 300 of those shipwrecks sit off the coast of Chicago alone—and so far, only about 50 have been found. 

“Much of [the city’s] history is underwater,” Dean Nolan, president of the Underwater Archaeological Society of Chicago, a group that works to preserve the region’s shipwreck history, told mental_floss.

It’s an oft-forgotten part of Chicago’s past, but for an important span of decades, the lakes were used as a superhighway funneling traffic to the city—from lumber used to rebuild after the Great Chicago fire to immigrants fleeing hardship.

“We’ve forgotten that part of our past here in Chicago,” Jim Gentile, owner of Windy City Diving, tells mental_floss. “But the city wouldn’t exist without maritime history. We’re known as a railroad hub, but the first railroad engine actually came here on a boat.”

Luckily, it’s possible to get out and see that history firsthand off Chicago’s coastline. More than a dozen shipwrecks are active dive sites in Lake Michigan, preserved by icy cold freshwater, relatively small amounts of marine growth, and little human traffic.

“A Great Lakes shipwreck diver is in a class by himself,” Pearson tells mental_floss. “Out of the diving community as a whole, there are very few.” That may be in part because of the challenges: Winter weather and storms make the dive season in Chicago relatively short. The harbors are open from late April to October. Most divers go out in the mid-summer when it’s warm, but Gentile suggests diving earlier in the season—visibility shrinks throughout the year because plankton begins to flourish.

So grab a dive-suit and head out to the lake—here are some of the best shipwrecks near Chicago.


Although older shipwrecks pepper Lake Michigan waiting to be discovered, Wings of the Wind is so far the oldest one located. It went down in 1866 after a harrowing early morning collision with a larger boat, the H.P. Baldwin. Suffering little damage, the Baldwin continued on its course. Meanwhile, Wings of the Wind quickly flooded and began to sink. The crew was able to escape onto a yawl boat, rowed a few yards away, and began to shout for help. The Baldwin, still nearby, returned and rescued the crew. The wreck now sits about a mile northeast of North Avenue Beach.

Much of the wreck was pilfered when divers rediscovered the site in 1987, but the ship still provides an excellent experience. Divers can see much of it intact and, at the same time, get a unique look at marine architecture of the mid-1800s.


Three miles off Evanston, just north of Chicago, the Wells Burt rests in 40 feet of water. The ship floundered in a violent storm in 1883, one where wave spray was recorded 100 feet high on the nearby shoreline. Once its steering gears failed and the mizzenmast ripped loose, it sank with all 11 crew. The boat’s owner sent a team of divers out to recover what could be salvaged, but its hull remains on the lake floor, undisturbed for over a century.

The wreck, still completely intact, was rediscovered by a group of divers in the late 1980s. Pearson was part of that team. He says the Wells Burt changed the way divers treat shipwrecks: Now they’re looked at “not as a pile of junk to be picked through, but complete evidence of a true story that was waiting in the pages of history to surface."


This may not be a natural wreck, but the Straits of Mackinac is one of Chicago’s premier dive sites. During high season, it has divers nearly every weekend. It sits just northeast of Navy Pier in 82 feet of water. Its life began as a car ferry that transported people from the Upper Peninsula to lower Michigan before the Mackinac Bridge was built. Gentile bought the ship at auction for $1, saving it from a future life as scrap metal. Now, it serves as an intact dive site about 80 feet down where you can even venture inside the ship. It's also a good fishing spot—salmon congregate there for shelter.

“Chicago is relatively shallow compared to the rest of the lake,” Gentile says. “The shipwrecks down here tend to get flattened by the effect of the waves. The artificial shipwrecks were sunk to give divers something more to explore, and it works well for fishermen too.”


In 1891, the Thomas Hume disappeared without a trace from Lake Michigan. It had been heading to Muskegon from Chicago after dropping off lumber when a storm hit. The Rouse Simmons, the ship it was sailing with, returned to Chicago safely. The Hume chose to continue, and was never heard from again. After the storm, no wreckage was found. The crew vanished along with the boat. The owners offered a reward for anyone who could find the ship, but it was never collected. Rumors began to surface about the lost boat; some claimed the crew mutinied against the owners and repainted the boat as their own, or that it had disappeared into the Bermuda Triangle’s Midwest cousin, the Michigan Triangle.

Recovery diver Taras Lyssenko solved the mystery in 2006 when he discovered a nearly perfect ship 22 miles offshore and about 150 feet down. Once located, the Thomas Hume was a perfect time capsule of maritime life in the late 1800s. “It’s the best wreck in the Chicagoland area because it supplies a lot of those artifacts and bits of history,” Gentile says. “There were tools, plates, and even shoes.”

All photos courtesy of Windy City Diving

ira_paradox Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
11 Inventions That Came Before the Wheel
ira_paradox Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
ira_paradox Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The wheel is the classic example of early human invention—a quintessential innovation that distinguishes Homo sapiens from all other animals. But in the scope of human history, the wheel is actually a rather young creation. Ancient Mesopotamians in modern-day Iraq became the first people to adopt the wheel only around 5500 years ago, and fairly recent cultures from other parts of the world have managed to make impressive technical accomplishments without wheels at all. (The wheel-less people of Easter Island, for example, transported and erected their towering moai statues less than 1000 years ago.) From booze to the bow and arrow, here are 11 innovations that predate the wheel.

1. BOOZE // 7000 BCE

variety of cocktails on a bar

Some archaeologists are starting to think that the world's first farmers domesticated grains to make beer, not bread. While the extent of alcohol's influence on human civilization is still debated, its antiquity is not. The oldest evidence for booze so far comes from 9000-year-old chemical traces of a fermented cocktail found on a drinking vessel in Jiahu, China.

2. CLOTHING // 150,000 BCE

A dress discovered in Egypt that is more than 5000 years old
UCL Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology

We're all born naked, but most of us are forced to wear clothes shortly afterwards. Since textiles, leathers, and furs tend to disintegrate over time, scientists have had to get creative in their quest to pinpoint the origin of clothing. The dress above, discovered in Egypt, is at least 5100 years old, but that makes it pretty recent. Clothes actually date back much further: A stone tool from a site in Germany has traces of tanned animal skin, which suggests that humans' Neanderthal cousins were wearing hides 100,000 years ago, and a study from 2011 proposed that the origin of clothes can be traced to the evolution of clothing lice, around 170,000 years ago.

3. JEWELRY // 110,000 BCE

K. Gavrilov in Antiquity Publications Ltd, 2018

Garments certainly helped humans to compensate for lost body fur and to move into colder climates, but clothes may have also been a cultural invention. As archaeological evidence of jewelry can attest, humans have also been adorning their bodies for decorative purposes for a very long time. Among the oldest surviving pieces of jewelry are 82,000-year-old pierced shells covered in red pigment from a cave in Morocco and a 130,000-year-old eagle-claw necklace found in a Neanderthal cave in Croatia. The above burial, found in Russia at a site called Sunghir, is younger, but still ancient: The man was buried more than 30,000 years ago with an elaborate array of mammoth ivory beads and arm bands, a headband of pierced fox teeth, and a pendant. (Some of the items may once have been sewn onto clothing.)

4. BOATS // 43,000–8000 BCE

Dugout boats at Kierikki Stone Age Centre

Before animal-drawn carts became a preferred mode of transport, there were rafts and boats. The 10,000-year-old Pesse canoe found in the Netherlands is thought to be the world's oldest surviving boat. But humans likely figured out how to navigate the seas for fishing and exploration even earlier. After all, people somehow crossed the seas to populate Australia, Indonesia, and islands in the Pacific at least 45,000 years ago.

5. CALENDARS // 8000 BCE

An illustration of how a 10,000-year-old
© Google Earth, Plan based on Murray et al. 2009, fig. 3, in Internet Archaeology // CC BY 3.0

Long before the gear-wheels of clocks were invented, humans used sophisticated methods to track the passage of time. One group of archaeologists has claimed that the oldest known calendar could be a 10,000-year-old series of 12 pits found in Scotland that appear to mimic the lunar cycle. You can see in the image above how the researchers imagine the system to have worked.


Utrilla et. all in Journal of Human Evolution

Just as they had to invent ways to track time, so, too, did humans have to figure out how to represent space so that they could navigate their world. Archaeologists still debate the meaning of the earliest rock art, but some of the oldest examples of possible prehistoric maps come from Abauntz Cave in Spain. The 14,000-year-old stone tablets are thought to depict mountains, rivers, and ponds, intersected with routes and hunting game-plans. You can see the top and bottom of one tablet above.

7. COOKING // 1.8 MILLION–500,000 BCE


Sometime after humans learned to control fire, they invented cooking. When you start breaking down meat and plants over an open flame, you don't have to expend as much energy chewing and digesting those foods. A conservative estimate for the rise of cooking would be 500,000 years ago, and according to a recent article in Scientific American, some researchers argue that cooking came about 1.8 million years ago by Homo erectus, a direct ancestor of Homo sapiens. They propose that this development in human evolution is what allowed our brain size to increase.


bone flute
Sascha Schuermann, AFP/Getty Images

The darkened passageways inside Germany's Hohle Fels cave get even spookier when you imagine the sounds of flutes echoing through the caverns. This is the archaeological site where the world's oldest musical instruments—43,000-year-old bone flutes made of vulture wing and mammoth tusk—have been found. Want to hear what they might have sounded like? One researcher made a replica of the vulture-wing flute, and NPR has the tune.

9. GLUE // 200,000 BCE

glue spilling from bottle onto wood table

The superglue in your toolbox and Elmer's in your kid's classroom have a long pedigree. About 200,000 years ago, Neanderthals roaming Europe used adhesive tar from birch bark to fix their stone spear tips to handles. Recent experiments suggest this type of glue was complex and difficult to make.

10. POTTERY // 18,000 BCE

archaeologist with ancient pottery
Marvin Recinos, AFP/Getty Images

Thousands of years before the invention of the wheel, people were making vessels for drinking, eating, and storage by pinching, rolling, or coiling clay into shape and baking it until hard. The oldest crude ceramic vessels come from China and date back 20,000 years. The invention of the wheel allowed for the rise of wheel-thrown pottery. Some even argue that the potter's wheel was probably the first type of wheel ever created.

11. BOW AND ARROW // 7000 BCE

rock art of hunters using bows and arrows

The remains of five bows crafted 9000 years ago were found at the Stone Age settlement of Holmegårds Mose in Denmark. But bows and arrows may have been invented far earlier by savvy hunters who wanted an efficient weapon to kill prey from a distance. Some archaeologists have argued that Sibudu Cave in South Africa contains evidence of 64,000-year-old stone-tipped arrows and bows.

Northwestern University/Courtesy of the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology and the Regents of the University of California and NU-ACCESS
See Lifelike Mummy Portraits From Roman Egypt, Now at Northwestern University
Northwestern University/Courtesy of the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology and the Regents of the University of California and NU-ACCESS
Northwestern University/Courtesy of the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology and the Regents of the University of California and NU-ACCESS

Despite sophisticated preservation methods, it's hard to tell what a 2000-year-old mummy looked like in life from its remains alone. Luckily, there were Greco-Egyptians between the 1st and 3rd centuries who had the forethought to include handy portraits with the mummies they laid to rest. Now, as ScienceNews reports, seven mummy sketches from Roman Egypt are displayed at Northwestern University’s Block Museum of Art.

The exhibit is titled "Paint the Eyes Softer: Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt," a reference to a note to the artist that was discovered with one of the sketches. The portraits, drawn in ink, chalk, or paint, were fastened to the subjects they represented with the same linens used to wrap the bodies. Mummy and portrait were meant to be joined together for eternity, but after they were discovered, they were separated by excavators. While the pieces have all sustained some damage over the centuries, the images of the faces are fully visible in many.

Mummy portrait
Northwestern University/Courtesy of the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology and the Regents of the University of California

Mummy portrait
Northwestern University/Courtesy of the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology and the Regents of the University of Californiaand NU-ACCESS

Mummy portrait
Northwestern University/Courtesy of the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology and the Regents of the University of Californiaand NU-ACCESS

The mask collection is currently available for the public to view. Visitors wishing to catch them in person can head over to the Block Museum of Art before the show closes April 15.

[h/t ScienceNews]


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