Whitefish Point Light Station, established in 1849, is Michigan's most famous lighthouse and the oldest active lighthouse on Lake Superior. Located just north of Paradise in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, it is the site of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum. The families of the lost Edmund Fitzgerald victims wanted to establish a permanent memorial and chose Whitefish Point Light Station as the spot to honor the 29 crewmen who went down in a violent storm off Whitefish Point in Lake Superior on November 10, 1975.
The early French explorers, approaching the great inland seas, heard tales about a "Great Northern Sea" far above Lake Huron. Discovered in 1621 by Etienne Brule and a man named Grenoble, what they hoped would be a route to the Orient (I'm glad we aren't the only ones who think it looks like the ocean!) turned out to be a freshwater lake and was named "Lac Superior." By far the largest, coldest, and deepest body of fresh water in the world, Lake Superior has since entombed in her icy depths the remains of over 550 shipwrecks. The museum has done a nice job of memorializing each of these tragic events.
In a desolate 80-mile stretch that extends from Whitefish Point west to Pictured Rocks (Bob and I hope to tour Pictured Rocks at our next destination) lay the broken remains of many a once-proud vessel. In over 300 recorded accidents along this shipwreck coast, approximately 320 sailors have perished. Raging northwesterly storms that build over a 200-mile sweep of open water, along with poor visibility and heavy traffic in converging shipping lanes, have contributed to the great loss of ships and men. It is this deadly combination that has given Whitefish Point the ominous title, "Graveyard of the Great Lakes." After 14 years of service, the British schooner Invincible became the first commercial vessel lost on Lake Superior. Her final trip of 1816 while ferrying around the middle of Whitefish Bay, she was overtaken by a northwest gale which drove the ship ashore to its destruction in the vicinity of Whitefish Point. Miraculously, the crew struggled ashore and under great hardship made their way back to the Sault.
The 205-foot Niagara, in tow of the steamer Australasia and overloaded with iron ore, was downbound from Ashland to Ashtabula when a storm arose (early in September, 1897, when usually November was the bad month for severe storms.) As a gale came up the Niagara dropped her tow and the two ships parted just 10 miles above Whitefish Point. Just as the Niagara broke adrift, a furious blast of wind struck her and blew the foresail clean out of the bolts. With no canvas to steady her she fell into the trough of the sea...and as she righted there was a loud crash and her lofty spars toppled over. Powerless to help, the Australasia witnessed the tragic denouement as the captain and his nine crewmen desperately launched the ship's yawl, a futile gesture in such a sea. They had pulled but a few lengths when they were capsized and swept under, followed shortly by the Niagara herself at 765 tons.
In November 1919 the wooden steamer Myron with barge Miztec in tow and both heavily laden with lumber, sailed from Munising into a gale typical of that month whose weather had already claimed several ships. The Myron was dead in the water, powerless and sinking. Captain Walter R. Neale orders the crew into lifeboats, but elects to stay with the ship, which sinks within minutes, three miles short of Whitefish Point and a mile and a half from shore. Snow, approaching darkness, danger of running aground, and difficulty of maneuvering among the careering flotsam of timbers off the Myron's deck combine to prevent two would-be rescue ships and a surf boat from Vermillion from pulling a single sailor from the raging sea. Ironically, Captain Neale is discovered and saved the next day 20 miles away near Isle Parisienne, having clung to a section of the Myron's pilothouse which was battered loose as the ship succumbed to the waves. In the Spring of 1920 the remains of eight sailors, found encased in ice near Salt Point, are buried in the old Indian cemetery atop Mission Hill, overlooking Iroquois Point and Lake Superior.
But the most famous of modern day Great Lakes shipwrecks is the 729 foot Edmund Fitzgerald (Big Fitz.) In calm seas on November 9, 1975, (just a few months after Bob and I were married thirty years ago) the Edmund Fitzgerald departed the western Lake Superior port of Superior, Wisconsin, fully loaded with 29,000 tons of taconite pellets destined for the great Lakes Steel Company near Detroit. Big Fitz and her 29 crewmen had made their last port of call. Less than 29 hours from that moment and 17 years after her gala christening, the Fitzgerald with all aboard would lie twisted and broken in the cold, deep waters off Whitefish point. It is hard to imagine the size of this vessel at 729' x 75' x 39'. Her tonnage was 13,632 Gross and 8,717 Net. She was a steel-hulled, propeller driven bulk freighter built in 1958 by Great Lakes Engineering Works, River Rouge, Michigan, and owned by Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company. In fact, she was named for one of the company executives.
At 7:10 p.m., November 10, 1975, Lake Superior was writhing in the worst storm veteran Great Lakes sailors had experienced in more than 30 years. Winds were being clocked at 80.5 miles per hour, gusting to 96 miles per hour and waves were running 30 feet high. The last radio transmission from the Fitzgerald sent by Captains McSorley and Cooper and First Mate Clark said
"It's a hell of a night for the Whitefish beacon not to be operating."
"It sure is." responded the ore carrier Anderson following close behind. "By the way, how are you making out with your problems?"
"We are holding our own."
Later the Anderson sent a message to the Coast Guard base at Sault Ste. Marie "This is the Anderson. I'm very concerned with the welfare of the steamer Edmund Fitzgerald. I can see no lights as before, and I don't have him on radar. I just hope he didn't make a nose dive."
"Do you think there is any possibility that you could come about and go back there and do any searching?"
"Well, I'll go back and take a look, but God, I'm afraid I'm going to take a hell of a beating out there."
On November 15, 1975 the broken remains of the Edmund Fitzgerald were located 17 miles northwest of Whitefish Point. On May 20, 1976 the U.S. Navy's camera equipped remote Controlled Underwater Recovery Vehicle (CURV III) was lowered 530 feet to the bottom in search of a probable cause for the sinking. What was hailed as the most comprehensive investigation into a Great Lakes maritime disaster ever conducted only posed more questions than it sought to answer. The U.S. Coast Guard findings were disputed and theories proposed by others are many, but a definite cause for the Fitzgerald's demise is known only by the souls of the 29 crewmen still at their stations in this "Graveyard of the Great Lakes." It was eerie to hear Gordon Lightfoot's chilling tribute "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" playing in the museum. 'Lake Superior it's said, never gives up her dead.'
However, twenty years later during June and July of 1995, the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society, working with the National Geographic Society and the Canadian Navy, used NEWTSUIT to explore the Edmund Fitzgerald and recover her bell. Designed for deep cold water diving, NEWTSUIT, is capable of reaching depths of 1,200 feet. The suit's hard protective shell maintains an internal pressure equal to one-atmosphere (14.7 psi). This constant pressure allows a diver to ascend without decompressing regardless of bottom time. A diver can stay down longer with a 54-hour air supply. Four electric side mounted thrusters provide helicopter-like maneuverability. Tethered to the surface for launch and recovery convenience, the 900-pound NEWTSUIT can also disconnect and operate untethered with its own back up power supply and wireless communication system.
On July 4, 1995, 17 miles northwest of Whitefish Point, a diver wearing the NEWTSUIT, cut the last stanchion that secured the Edmund Fitzgerald's bell to the pilothouse. Slowly, gracefully, the 195 pound bronze bell ascended 500 feet to the surface, welcomed by the daylight of a pleasant summer afternoon. For family members in attendance that day, the raising of the Fitzgerald's bell signaled the beginning of a memorial and closure to 20 years of grieving. I thought it was interesting that a replica bell inscribed with the names of the 29 Fitzgerald crewmen was lowered in its place as a permanent grave marker.
A display that caught my interest in the Shipwreck Museum was the White Shoal Lens, a life-saving beacon for 75 years. This Second-Order Fresnel Lens was originally located in northern Lake Michigan, 20 miles west of the Straits of Mackinac and warned sailors of the treacherous shallows known as White Shoal. Fresnel lenses, vastly superior to older Lewis lamps, were invented by Augustin Fresnel in 1822 but were not used in U.S. Lighthouses until thirty years later because the General Superintendent of Lights was a close personal friend of Winslow Lewis who invented the Lewis lamps that burned sperm whale oil.
There are seven orders of lens, with the largest being a First Order. Replaced in 1983 by a more modern beacon, this Second Order lens in now on permanent loan to the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society from the U.S. Coast Guard. Built by Barbier, Bernard and Turenne of Paris, France for the U.S. Lighthouse Service, this 9-foot diameter, 3,500-pound lens literally floats on a bearing surface of liquid mercury allowing for near frictionless rotation. 344 separate precision-ground, leaded crystal prisms are exactly arranged to refract and magnify a modest light source into an intense beam that can be seen for a distance of over 28 miles.
Bob was fascinated by the clockwork mechanism of the lens...nearly identical to grandfather clock workings which drives gears to turn the unit, regulated by a pendulum dropping 44 feet through a tube into the heart of the 125-foot tower. Every 2 hours and 18 minutes through the night, the light-keeper had to wind the mechanism that produced a distinctive 7 and 1/2 second pause between light beams.
Our next stop after the Museum was the Shipwreck Theatre where we saw a film on the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Then we toured the Whitefish Point Light Station itself. The keepersí quarters and iron-pile light tower, constructed in 1861, replaced the original lighthouse built here in 1849. With the number of maritime accidents, particularly in the congested shipping lanes off Whitefish Point, the U.S. Lighthouse service constantly up-dated their signaling equipment and employed additional keepers as needed. In 1895, this structure was converted from a single family dwelling into a duplex that provided housing for two keepers and their families. Although the living quarters were separate and private, both keepers had common access to the light tower through a covered bridge located on the 2nd floor. A third keeper (2nd-assistant) and his family lived in a small house that once stood next to the lighthouse.
Whitefish Point has been called the graveyard of Lake Superior. More vessels were lost in the Whitefish Point area than any other part of Lake Superior. There are three major reasons for the high loss of ships in this area. First, the eastern end of the lake is very congested where the lake narrows down like a funnel and up and down bound ship traffic must pass. Poor visibility in this congested area from fog, forest fires, and snow has caused numerous collisions and groundings. Finally, the nature of the largest lake itself, with the great expanse of over 200 miles of open water can build up terrific seas during a Superior "Northwestern" storm.
Collisions were more common in earlier times because there were more vessels. In the 1880's over 3100 commercial vessels were on the lakes compared to less than 200 today. Since the first known shipwreck of the Invincible in 1816 to the Edmund Fitzgerald in 1975, approximately 320 lives have been lost in over 300 shipwrecks and accidents in the area known as the graveyard of the Great Lakes.
I got a kick out of the old life jacket with cork strips sewn onto it that was displayed in another one of the building. In this same building was a huge display board of hundreds of old postcards, mostly from the early 1900's, depicting Life Saving Stations. I can't imagine the intense search this guy must have had to find so many rare postcards of an obscure topic in such pristine condition. We wrapped up our tour by finding souvenir postcards in the gift shop and stopping in the bird watcher's society building across the highway. The lady in the bird shop directed us to The Fish House just west of Paradise.
The Fish House looked like a dive but the food was great. We started with smoked lake trout appetizer, then tried the Whitefish Soup and finished with Whitefish sandwiches. It was hard to pick a favorite. We were stuffed when we left. A whole group of divers came in after us. They were all diving at the famous shipwreck sites in Lake Superior. I had a hard time backing The Beast out of the parking lot between their dive vans on the way out. (I drove on the way up to our excursion and later tonight I'll be glad it's Bob's turn to drive on the way back.)
It was a short drive west on M-123 to A HREF="http://www.Issu.edu.tahquafalls/">Tahquamenon Falls State Park. The Park encompasses close to 40,000 acres stretching over 13 miles. Most of this is undeveloped woodland without roads, building or power lines. First we encountered the entrance to the Lower Falls, a series of five smaller falls cascading around an island. Rather than drive four miles upstream to view the Upper Falls, we decided to take the foot trail between the two. It is an eight mile round trip but it was only around 3:00 so we had plenty of daylight left. We viewed the Lower Falls from the observation area and saw two guys in a small boat trying to measure a northern pike that they caught. It must not have been long enough because they threw it back in. You could rent a rowboat and go out to the island to view the Falls. Since we were taking the trail along the series of Falls we just went back to the truck and donned our hiking shoes for our long trek.
At the trailhead was a sign that said "Moderately Difficult Trail." They weren't kidding. There were lots of up and down embankments and over a dozen sets of steep stairways. The roots of trees were swarming over the path and you had to watch your footing. But the Falls were breathtaking and the Tahquamenon River was right out of a postcard or a movie scene from the great northwest. Tall pines lined the River and the water was as clear as can be. Rising from springs north of McMillan the Tahquamenon River drains the watershed of an area of more than 790 square miles. From its source, it meanders 94 miles before emptying into Whitefish Bay (we passed the entry point twice on our journey today.) The amber color of the water is not rust nor is it muddiness; it is caused by tannin leached from the Cedar Spruce and Hemlock trees in the swamps drained by the river. The extremely soft water churned by the action of the falls causes the large amounts of foam, which has been the trademark of the Tahquamenon since the days of the voyagers. This is the land of Longfellow's Hiawatha--"by the rushing Tahquamenaw" Hiawatha built his canoe. Long before the white man set eyes on the river, the abundance of fish in its waters and animals along its shores attracted the Ojibwa Indians, who camped, farmed, fished and trapped along its banks. In the late 1800's came the lumber barons and the river carried their logs by the millions to the mills. We were astonished to read that except for one Wilderness Trail State Park in the Upper Peninsula there is no original growth forestland left. It has all been cut at least once.
Bob was itching to have a pair of waders and go out in the river with his fly rod. It looked like there was a fish next to every rippling rock in the place. Our hike was one of the most scenic we have taken. It was only marred by a steady rain that started after the first mile. No one we encountered on the trail even mentioned the rain; as if it were a daily occurrence not to be noticed much. We heard thunder a few times and I was wondering why we continued to walk for four miles away from the truck. But in just under two hours we reached the Upper Falls and all was forgotten. One of the largest waterfalls east of the Mississippi (second only to Niagara) it has a drop of nearly 50 feet and is more than 200 feet across. A maximum flow of more than 50,000 gallons of water per second has been recorded cascading over these falls. We took 94 steps down (and back up again) at the Brinks Stairs. Then we found the lodge and had hot chocolate and coffee in rocking chairs under the covered pavilion. After getting wet in the rain we had quite a chill once we stopped walking and climbing. The bad part was we still had four miles to go. A young guy near the rest rooms holding ponchos asked Bob how he stayed so dry. Then he took a second look and said "Oh, maybe not." He said his wife drove the car around from the Lower Falls while he hiked the four miles to the Upper Falls on the trail. I told Bob "I wish your wife had done that!"
I bought postcards in the gift shop and we set out again. Before resuming the trail back to the Lower Falls we took 116 steps down (and back up again) on the Gorge Stairs. By this time the rain had stopped thankfully. We made good time on the way back; 20 to 25 minutes miles. We were both glad to see the truck at around 8:00 p.m. We took our muddy shoes off and headed back to Indian River. We stopped in Eckerman, MI, at Maple Ridge Restuarant. It was 8:50 and they were closing at 9:00 but the daughter of the owner was nice enough to seat us. Bob had a good looking burger and I had a huge bowl of chili served with delightfully sweet flat corn muffins that looked like pancakes. We needed some energy after our hike. Ther were 46 assorted coffee mugs lined up on the double table in the center of the room. I couldn't resist asking our waitress if folks came in and used their favorite cup. She said yes, they came in the morning but mostly around 6 or 7 in the evening too for coffee and gossip; mostly gossip was her opinion.
The Mackinac Bridge at night was lit up with red, green and white lights. We couldn't get over how there were almost no electric lights lining the shores of Lakes Michigan and Huron on either side of the Straits. In fact, we were struck all day by how little building and development there is in the Upper Peninsula. What houses and businesses there are look like they've been around 40 to 70 years. Of course, when we think what the weather must be like during the winter it's not hard to understand why the UP is sparsely populated.
We were home by 11:00, pretty late for us old folks. We were shocked to see all of the weekend warriors sitting around blazing campfires back at Indian River. We took glorious hot showers and fell asleep before our heads hit the pillows. This was definitely one of our more memorable AND exhausting days on our journey.