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4 Spectacular Shipwrecks You Can Dive Near Chicago

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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

6 Pioneering Facts About Mary Leakey

Fossil bones and the earliest footprints of our human ancestors are just a few of Mary Leakey’s groundbreaking discoveries. Get to know the legendary paleoanthropologist, and learn how her serendipitous finds forever altered scientists’ understanding of human origins.


Mary Leakey (1913-1996), née Mary Nicol, was destined to be an explorer: Her father, Erskine Nicol, was a landscape painter, and the family traveled extensively through France, Italy, and Switzerland. While staying in a commune in southern France, 12-year-old Mary became interested in archaeology after meeting Elie Peyrony, a French prehistorian excavating a cave. Mary dug through his tiny finds—which included fine points, scrapers, and flint blades—and sorted them into an amateur classification system.


Leakey’s parents were artists, but hunting for fossils was part of her heritage: Her maternal great-great-grandfather was John Frere, an 18th-century English government official and antiquarian who’s credited with first recognizing Stone Age flint objects as early weapons and tools.


Leakey was intelligent, but she also had a rebellious streak. As a teen, she was expelled from several Roman Catholic convent schools—once for intentionally creating an explosion in a chemistry lab. Figuring she wasn’t cut out for a classroom, Leakey never finished high school, and decided to pursue independent studies in art, geology, and archaeology at the University of London instead. (“I had never passed a single school exam, and clearly never would,” the scientist later wrote in her 1986 autobiography Disclosing the Past.)


Mary Leakey—who inherited her father’s artistic skills— ended up working as an illustrator for archaeological digs. An archaeologist introduced her to Cambridge University paleontologist Louis Leakey, who needed an illustrator for his book Adam’s Ancestors (1934). The two became lovers, but their union resulted in scandal, as Leakey was still married at the time. The couple married in 1936, after Leakey divorced his first wife.


Mary Leakey's first major discovery came in 1948 when she found a fossil skull fragment of Proconsul africanus, an ancestor of apes and humans, which later diverged into two separate species. The fossil was thought to be more than 18 million years old.


In 1978, Leakey was on an expedition in Laetoli, in Tanzania, when members of her camp engaged in a spirited elephant dung fight. A scientist fell down, and he noticed strange indentations on the ground that had been recently exposed by erosion. They turned out to be tracks made around 3.7 million years prior, from animals that had walked over damp volcanic ash. Examining these prints took several years, but the team's efforts paid off when Leakey noted that one of the prints seemed to be made by a hominin. This discovery showed that early humans began walking upright long before scientists thought they had.

Additional source: Ancestral Passions: The Leakey Family and the Quest for Humankind's Beginnings, Virginia Morell

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Researchers Unveil an Unusual New Theory For How Easter Island’s Statues Were Made
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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Moai statues of Easter Island present one of the world's greatest technical mysteries. The stone heads (actually full bodies) that dot the island in the South Pacific are massive and number in the hundreds, prompting archaeologists to wonder how they got there in the first place. Now, as Newsweek reports, a group of researchers believe they're closer to finding an answer.

European sailors first arrived on Easter Island in 1722 and were greeted by a native population of 1500 to 3000. Along with the residents were 900-odd statues carved from solid rock, meaning there were fewer than four people for every massive monolith.

How was such a thin population able pull off such an impressive feat of architecture? According to researchers from Chile, New Zealand, and the U.S., it's possible they had help. Their new study published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution suggests that the statues were carved and erected at a time when Easter Island supported a much larger population. Using data from the island, they estimated just how high the island's numbers may have reached.

Easter Island has the agriculture potential to sustain a maximum population of 17,500, researchers say. This estimate is based on the weather and soil quality of the island, 19 percent of which is capable of growing the sweet potatoes that fed inhabitants. "Despite its almost complete isolation, the inhabitants of Easter Island created a complicated social structure and these amazing works of art before a dramatic change occurred," lead author Cedric Puleston said in a statement.

If the Moai were constructed by a much larger group than the Europeans encountered, that would clear up some of the mystery surrounding the island. But it would also raise more questions. How, for instance, did the population fall so quickly in the few centuries between the statues' construction and first contact with Europeans? One theory is ecocide, which happens when an area is exhausted of its resources faster than it can replenish them.

The mystery of how the towering monoliths were transported across the island after they were built still remains. The indigenous people told Dutch explorers that the Moai walked themselves, an explanation an MIT professor put to the test when he designed a 2000-pound sculpture that could be shimmied long distances. But despite the numerous theories, hard evidence related to the figures' origins remains scarce.

[h/t Newsweek]


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