Titanic and Other Shipwrecks
One word says it all. Titanic.
It’s undisputedly the most famous sailing vessel of all time; its 1912 demise – and subsequent fascination – familiar worldwide. The discovery of the wreck in 1985, about 2½ miles under the surface of the North Atlantic, guaranteed its renown for decades to come.
It’s so remembered, said Bruce Bishop of Cincinnati, for several reasons: It was the maiden voyage of the state-of-the-art ship, created with the belief that anything could be accomplished. It was, he says, “a fantastic piece of architecture that moved.”
And there were the blunders, each by itself not all that damning, perhaps, but together spelling disaster. No binoculars in the crow’s nest. Too few lifeboats. Too great a speed for weather conditions. The initial refusal to believe the ship was really sinking, creating reluctance to board the lifeboats.
The tall, bearded Bishop is in Indianapolis these days, portraying Edward Smith, the Titanic’s captain. “Titanic: The Artifact Exhibit,” filled with more than 240 items brought up from the vessel’s watery grave, speaks of a ship that has earned its place in the annals of history. The exhibit is at the Indiana State Museum (www.indianamuseum.org) through January 16.
Among the artifacts are clothing, coins, playing cards, hairbrushes, buttons, even perfume vials that have retained their strong aromas. A host of au gratin dishes are lined up like dominoes; the wood cabinet they were in rotted away, leaving the china stacked neatly together.
And there are the individual stories of many. Upon entering the exhibit, each visitor receives a replica boarding pass of an actual passenger. Upon leaving, he can check his passenger in the Memorial Gallery to see if that passenger survived or perished.
“There was a lot of heroism,” said Bishop. “I’ve always liked Mr. Murdoch, and Lightoller.” Both officers supervised launchings of the lifeboats.
The Titanic carried more than 2,200 people on her fateful voyage; only a few more than 700 survived. Among the casualties was Capt. Smith.
Capt. Ernest McSorley went down with his ship, too. The gales of November came early in 1975, sending the Edmund Fitzgerald to the bottom of Lake Superior and prompting folk singer Gordon Lightfoot to memorialize the event in song.
The sinking of the Fitzgerald is perhaps the Great Lakes’ most famous disaster. She took on a load of iron ore in Superior, Wis., and sailed out onto the Big Lake, bound for Detroit, on November 9, 1975.
“The Fitzgerald left in rough weather,” said Tom Farnquist, executive director of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum (www.shipwreckmuseum.com) in Paradise, Mich. “The weather was supposed to be nasty, but nothing the ship hadn’t been through a hundred times. All of a sudden it was upgraded to gale force. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong that night.”
It was the boat’s last scheduled trip of the season, and the captain’s last scheduled trip before retirement. He chose a northern route, hugging the Canadian shore, in an effort to escape the rough seas. The laker lost its radar, the hatches opened and took on water, and the cargo of iron ore pellets shifted. The Fitzgerald went down 17 miles northwest of Whitefish Point, in Canadian waters, on the evening of November 10. Her crew of 29 went down with her.
Twenty years later her bell was brought up, ringing as it surfaced, and became the focal point for the museum. A replacement bell was put to rest in the water with the Fitzgerald.
The museum’s official season is May 1 – October 31, but it always opens on November 10. The bell is tolled 30 times – 29 times for each of the men lost on the Fitzgerald, and once for all mariners who have lost their lives on the Great Lakes.
More than 6,000 ships and 35,000 lives have been lost on the Great Lakes since record keeping began in 1679. “A conservative estimate,” said Farnquist, adding that the true number is more likely 10,000 to 12,000 shipwrecks.
Some of those wrecks are on Michigan’s Sunrise Coast. Here it’s about Lake Huron – her fury as well as her beauty. The story includes the lighthouses and their keepers who saved many ships and sailors from disaster, and the watery graves of those they couldn’t.
More than 200 ships have gone down in Shipwreck Alley, just off the northeast coast of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. They’re considered so important that a federal preserve, the 448-square-mile Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary (www.thunderbay.noaa.gov), has been created to protect and preserve them. More than 50 shipwrecks have been identified within the underwater sanctuary, and an additional 30 have been located just outside the sanctuary boundary.
Thunder Bay is part of NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), which also operates other agencies that include the National Weather Service, the National Hurricane Service and the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory. It is headquartered in the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center in Alpena, Mich.
Thunder Bay is an archaeologist’s dream, to be sure. But the public is invited to take a look at the sunken vessels in a variety of ways. While disturbing the wrecks is illegal, visiting the underwater sites is encouraged.
“We like to give people a progressively more wet experience,” said Thunder Bay education coordinator Cathy Green. Visitors can begin in the building by checking out the exhibits or an internet site with videos of shipwrecks using a remotely operated vehicle. Then there’s strolling along the boardwalk by the river. That might turn into an interest in renting a kayak and taking a look at some of the shallow sites. “There are many sites you can see just looking over the side of a boat,” Green said.
That in turn could spark an interest in snorkeling and, ultimately, recreational scuba diving. Marking buoys make the sunken vessels easy to locate, providing continuous down and ascent lines for divers. Charter boat services, diving and snorkeling tours, kayak and canoe rentals, and sightseeing excursions are offered by Alpena marine businesses during the summer season.
“We have a well preserved collection of wrecks,” Green said. “NOAA wanted to have a sanctuary on the Great Lakes that dealt specifically with shipwrecks because our wrecks are so much more well preserved than anything in salt water. Cold, fresh water is like putting these wrecks in a gigantic freezer. There are wrecks on the bottom more than 150 years old that look like they sank yesterday; out in the ocean practically nothing would be left. We have a great opportunity to study these wrecks and to bring them to the public.”