Using Tahquamenon State Park as our base, there was yet another couple of highlights to take in while in this area. Our second morning there we once again headed out. Unlike yesterday morning, rain showers had moved in overnight and were forecasted to filter in and out all day. Nevertheless, it wouldn’t hamper our planned activity . . . we were off to the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point.
Jutting out into Lake Superior, Whitefish Point lies at the extreme western edge of Whitefish Bay. From this sandy, windblown spit of land, the lakeshore heads west, to eventually arrive at Grand Marais, from whence we recently came. The area in between is virtual wilderness, with only dirt roads leading to various spots along the lake. It is known as being some of the most remote and inaccessible land to be found in the eastern United States. The North Country Trail leads through the area, and is one of the most challenging segments for hikers. The skeleton of a hunter wasn’t found until two years after he was reported missing. A DNR field forester recalls the time it took his crew two hours to drive seven miles on a road to fight a forest fire along the Two Hearted River that flows into Lake Superior. This is the rough side to the Upper Peninsula.
We were more interested in the museum than we were in remote hiking opportunities. The museum and lighthouse complex would hold our attention for more than a couple of hours. It was this station where the ill-fated Edmund Fitzgerald freighter was heading that November night in 1975 when the ship vanished. Besides learning about other major shipwrecks on Lake Superior, the museum featured an entire exhibit on Big Fitz and the speculation of what caused her sinking.
This former Coast Guard complex was active for many years, which has a very strategic location on Lake Superior. Whitefish Bay is the funnel for ships entering and leaving Lake Superior via the St. Mary’s River. The Point marks the course change for ore boats and other ships navigating this treacherous coastline. The Bay is protected, but the open expanse of water to the north is called “the graveyard of the Great Lakes.” It bears the full force of prevailing winds from the north and west. Many vessels have sunk in these waters, the Edmund Fitzgerald being the most recent. Most of the others went down in the late 19th century, primarily due to navigational errors where radar would have saved the day for them. Unlike the Fitz, most of the other losses were due to collisions with other ships.
Splitting up, Chris spent time investigating other shipwreck exhibits, which were very well laid out. One entire building is dedicated to providing details of some of the ships that went down around Whitefish Point. Relics brought up from the depths as well as a model of each featured ship are on display. Of the 550 known major shipwrecks lying on the bottom of the lake, at least 200 of them are in the vicinity of Whitefish Point. He took time to read their details.
Melinda headed down to the beach. The leaden skies, blustery wind and pelleting rain gave me a fractional idea of what storms can brew up on these waters. The waves were crashing on the beach. Their reverberations gave a hint of the power they possessed.
The light tower loomed behind me. The first tower was built in 1849, and although constructed out of stone, it didn’t survive the strong winter storms. The present tower is a Civil War relic. Its iron skeletal steel framework was designed to relieve stress caused by high winds. Built in 1861 with authorization from President Lincoln, it is the oldest active light on the Lake.
The Edmund Fitzgerald exhibit seems to be the focal point of the main museum. There is a special display laid out in one of the coast guard buildings solely for the Fitz’s story and her last voyage. Rejoining Chris, first we viewed an excellent short film on the ship’s history, known as the “Queen of the Lakes” in her day.
Perhaps it isn’t unusual to have a curiosity about this big freighter’s demise. It almost defies comprehension how the unimaginable strength of a body of water that can take such a huge ship down. One of the museum volunteers was open to our questions, and seemed well-versed on the topic. With rapt attention, we listened for some time.
On November 10, 1975, the Edmund Fitzgerald was lost with her entire crew of 29 men, 17 miles northwest of Whitefish Point. Loaded with 26,000 tons of marble-sized taconite pellets, she was being closely followed by another freighter, the Arthur Anderson. As the gale-force storms overtook them, Captain McSorley of the Fitz kept radio contact with Captain Cooper. As the afternoon wore on, radio communications with the Fitz concerned navigational information, but no extraordinarily alarming reports from Captain McSorley. But about 7pm the Anderson was overcome by at least two consecutive monstrous waves that engulfed their entire vessel from astern. The first one drove the bow down into the sea, while (Capt. Cooper reports) “another wave just like the first one or bigger hit us again. I watched those two waves head down the lake towards the Fitzgerald and I think those were the two that sent him under.” There was to be no more radio contact between the captains and the radar signal coming from the Fitzgerald never re-appeared on the Anderson’s screen after the passing of those waves.
It wasn’t until the following May that the Fitzgerald remains were confirmed lying on the lake’s floor in more than 500 feet of water. She had broken into two parts. Conflicting theories about the cause of the tragedy remain active to this day. Three expeditions to the wreck all agree that she “submarined” bow first into an enormous sea, but what caused the ship to take on water, enough to lose buoyancy and dive to the bottom so quickly, without a single cry for help, cannot be determined.
A fact that we found particularly interesting concerned her size. At 729 feet long, that made her 200 feet longer than the depth of water she went down in. That gave us pause to imagine. Until 1971 the Fitzgerald was the largest ship on the Great Lakes.
At the request of family members surviving her crew, Fitzgerald’s 200 pound bronze bell was recovered from the depths on July 4, 1995. It was replaced on the deck of the sunken ship by a replica memorial bell upon which the names of all the men are engraved. The Fitzgerald’s bell is now on display in the museum.
It would be surprising to find someone not familiar with Gordon Lightfoot’s ballad, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Inspired by a Newsweek article on the event—The Cruelest Month, in November of 1975, Lightfoot considers this song to be his finest work.
The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee,
Superior, they said, never gives up her dead
When the gales of November come early.
We were headed back to camp when the leaden skies unexpectedly began to clear. With a couple of hours remaining until sunset, we didn’t need to call it a day yet. Not having an expectation the conditions would be favorable, the subject of one last excursion hadn’t been brought up. Seeing the day taking a more positive direction, Melinda made a proposition and somewhat to her surprise, Chris was game to take it on. We located the dirt road cutting off from the highway and turned off. Proceeding straight into that wilderness area previously mentioned, we were headed for an isolated lighthouse on Superior’s shores.
Crisp Point Lighthouse is one of Michigan’s most remote lighthouses, but it’s also one of its most scenic. One of five Lake Superior U.S. Life-Saving Service Stations along the “Shipwreck Coast,” it was built in 1875 and became operational one year later. Crisp Point was named after one of the Station keepers, an iron-willed boatman named Christopher Crisp. Construction on the lighthouse began in 1903, being first lit in May 1904. It stands 58 feet high. At one time the complex consisted of the station and crew quarters, a two-family brick keeper’s dwelling, a brick fog signal building, oilhouse, two barns, a boathouse and landing, a tramway, and the light tower. Once on the “Doomsday List”, the lighthouse has been returned to pristine condition and the service building that was destroyed years ago has been rebuilt.
After nearly an hour driving on a circuitous, rutted, sandy road, we pulled into the compound. Grabbing gear in hand, Melinda headed to the beach. The sun was dropping rapidly to the horizon and the golden light was already reflecting on the scene.
It was as picturesque a setting as the research had indicated. Located on a lonely, isolated strand of beach, it was only the water, the rocky shoreline and the sky. Many photographs later, she hoped to have captured the essence of this secluded light.
Darkness had fallen by the time we pulled away, retracing our route back to civilization. Trees hemmed in the road, blocking much of the light of the stars from offering illumination. Deer sprang out from the trees ahead of us more than once, adding to our unease. Nevertheless, we made it out from that wilderness road unscathed, and sufficiently grateful.
Tomorrow we will be heading out, taking with us memories of beautiful fall days, scenic locations, an enriching learning experience, some illustrative photos,
. . . and having attained one very out-of-the-way lighthouse.