Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Arts & Culture

After 100 Years, Search Goes On For 2 Sunken Ships


A hundred years ago today, a massive storm ravaged the Great Lakes, sinking 19 ships and killing 250 sailors. Eight of the shipwrecks were on Michigan's Lake Huron. And even now, a century later, the search continues for two ships that were never recovered.

David Nicholas, from member station WCMU, went out with researchers to explore an area of Lake Huron that's known as Shipwreck Alley.

DAVID NICHOLAS, BYLINE: Imagine being caught on open water with 90-mile-per-hour winds and 35 foot waves. That's what happened to sailors during what is known as The White Hurricane. It raged for four days across all of the Great Lakes, and still stands as the deadliest in Great Lakes history.

Russ Green is deputy superintendent of the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary in Alpena, Michigan. Archeologists from the sanctuary are surveying more than 400 square miles in the hunt for lost shipping relics.

RUSS GREEN: There's a healthy trade of natural and raw resources that leave the Great Lakes and go abroad, and that was true even in the era of wooden ships. Ships were leaving through the St. Lawrence, and later through the Erie Canal to go to certainly the East Coast, but also abroad, as well.

NICHOLAS: On a recent calm fall day, researchers set out on Lake Huron to look for possible sites for sunken ships. Using a sonar device called the tow-fish, four archeologists board a 50-foot research vessel called the RV Storm, leaving from Cheboygan, up near the Great Lakes Straits where Lake Michigan and Lake Huron meet.

Before heading to Shipwreck Alley, Captain Beau Braymer gives safety instructions.

CAPTAIN BEAU BRAYMER: What you guys need to know, life jackets. We have all of our work vests there. If you go outside that door, underway, you got to have a lifejacket on. Especially this time of year, but that's just the NOAA rule. It makes sense. You go in the water this time of year, and you'll want to float, so we can come get you, because you'll sink fast. It's cold.

NICHOLAS: Also on board today is Jim Keysor, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in Gaylord, Michigan. Keysor says even limited forecasting in 1913 warned of a brewing storm before November 7th. He says if a similar storm was forecast today, traffic on the lakes would be almost non-existent.

JIM KEYSOR: Most vessels would never, ever go out onto the lake when you're expecting 35-foot waves and hurricane-force winds. I mean, that just wouldn't occur today like it did a hundred years ago.

NICHOLAS: It was good luck to have good weather so close to November. And onboard, archeologist Stephanie Gandulla says while weather decides when to go, their underwater maps decide where to go.

STEPHANIE GANDULLA: Luckily, we are in an area that has been proven to be very dense with shipwrecks. It is Shipwreck Alley. And with the traffic in the Great Lakes in the 19th century and with the traffic now, I mean, there is a lot of shipping activity. And so the density of shipwrecks is proven, and so that kind of dictates where we go. We know where the shipping channels are. We also have a lot of reports - historical reports.

NICHOLAS: Two ships from the 1913 storm that remain lost are the James Carruthers and the Hydrus. Records show they were headed for southern Lake Huron, carrying grain and iron ore, probably bound for Ontario.

For NPR News, I'm David Nicholas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.