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Lake Michigan Graveyard
They frequently are called underwater museums -- wooden-hulled wrecks, scuttled barges and once-proud modern steamships -- that today sit motionless in frigid waters at the bottom of Lake Michigan.
Some of the lost cargo includes gold bouillon, liquor, marble, automobiles, iron ore, hardware, fine china and perishables such as leather goods, fruit, salt and grain.
Others are an icy graveyard where mummified bodies -- complete with skin, hair, fingernails, even tattoos -- have rested intact and undisturbed for more than a hundred years.
"Think of the Field Museum," says Mike Tapper, owner of N'Pursuit Adventure Charters, an East Chicago-based wreck diving specialist, "except that it's open to the public 24 hours a day, the lights are off, there are no guards, and nothing is in glass cases. That's what shipwrecks are like."
Since the loss of the tiny double-masted schooner "Leander" in 1857, Lake Michigan has continued to claim ships. There are thousands of shipwrecks littering its floor, many of which lie within a mile or two of Indiana shores.
What distinguishes these wrecks from others is their excellent state of preservation. Because Lake Michigan is so cold and because of the relative scarcity of marine life, many wrecks have remained intact and undisturbed for decades. Local divers can attest to the presence of intact bodies in 50- to 100-year-old wrecks.
Others have seen three-masted wooden schooners lying on the bottom in such good shape they could be re-floated. Still others have found readable books and logs, and tables still set for a meal that was served 120 years ago.
"It's like taking a trip back in time," Tapper said. "You leave the modern world behind when you visit the wrecks. You're transported to a time when schooners and steamers ruled the Great Lakes. You get an appreciation for the critical role these vessels played in the development of the region and a respect for the men and women that worked the lakes. There's no other way to get this close to history."
Tapper, who runs a fishing charter in addition to his wreck diving business out of the Robert A. Pastrick Marina, started diving Lake Michigan in the 1970s. He says the quality of underwater diving never has been better.
"Back then, there was no access to the wrecks, no charters, and the visibility was terrible," said the 46-year-old Hammond resident. "But today, because of the Zebra mussels, which eat all the algae, and better caps on industrial runoff, we've got far better visibility. In fact, in some areas, when the weather's calm, you can see wrecks in up to 65 feet of clear water."
One of those is the David Dows, the largest sailing vessel ever built on the Great Lakes and, at the time, the largest five-masted schooner in the world. Today, it rests at the bottom of 40 feet of water just off Calumet Harbor.
"The David Dows was a cursed vessel," says Benjamin J. Shelak, author of "Shipwrecks of Lake Michigan" (Trails Books, February 2003). "Nearing completion, she was scuttled while still on the blocks to prevent being swept away by rampaging ice-capped floodwaters."
Shelak said the firm of Baily Brothers, builders of the David Dows, soon went out of business while the company responsible for outfitting the famous schooner burned to its foundation just hours after receiving the contract for the Dows job.
As if this weren't enough, the ship's second mate died of a heart attack while supervising the construction.
"Troubles continued for the Dows until the Thanksgiving Day storm of 1889," Shelak said. "After being towed by the steamer Aurora, the Dows began taking on water and finally slipped beneath the windswept lake at 2:30 p.m. It still rests there today."
It is estimated that more than 10,000 vessels have sunk and approximately 30,000 people have perished on Lake Michigan over the years. Shelak says the numbers may be larger.
"In the ocean, you can sometimes outrun a storm. In the Great Lakes, where many ships hugged the shoreline, there was a far greater chance of running ashore. There just wasn't anywhere for these ships to go."
Shelak, an affable and outgoing father of two boys, recounts the harrowing story of the ill-fated voyage of the "Phoenix" in 1847.
After one of the ship's boilers had overheated and caught fire off the shores of Wisconsin, the passengers and crew had few options. As the lifeboats were being lowered, a seat was offered to David Blish, a businessman from Kenosha who was the father of four young children. He declined.
"Instead, Blish did everything in his power for those still alive on the doomed steamer," Shelak said. "When it was no longer possible to remain on board, he went over the railing with a child under each arm. Once in the water, he hung on to a piece of wreckage for as long as possible until disappearing beneath the waves."
But, as Shelak reminds us, cowardice often is as prevalent as heroism during shipwrecks.
In a story reminiscent of the "Phoenix," the "Niagra," one of the first "palace steamers" to cruise the shores of Indiana during the fall of 1856, caught fire shortly after leaving port in Sheyboygan, Wis.
As the ship was going down in flames, John Macy, a former Wisconsin congressman, offered $100,000 to anyone who would save his life.
Finding no takers, Macy spied a lifeboat filled with women and children. While the small boat was being lowered, Macy leaped aboard, causing the lines to snap.
"The boat dropped like a stone, depositing all its occupants into the lake. Everyone drowned," Shelak said.
Approximately 32 vessels have gone down near Indiana shores, but the number may be deceiving, according to Shelak. There are numerous wrecks half buried in silt, still waiting to be discovered.
The most popular wreck dive in the area is The Material Service Barge, a 239-foot-long solid steel transporter that sank like a rock at the mouth of the Cal Sag Channel during a violent storm in 1936. The ship's captain, the chief engineer and 14 others drowned, trapped in their berths in what has been called "the worst shipping disaster in Chicago history."
"It's an extremely compelling dive," Tapper said. "It sits right-side-up just 25 feet from the surface and it's still very much intact. There's the crew quarters, the galley, the engine room, everything. It's like a frozen time capsule from 1936."
Since 1980, laws that prohibit the removal of artifacts without a permit have protected most shipwrecks. But as Tapper notes, some divers, especially those who think they may be on top of a yet undiscovered fortune, don't always follow the rules.
"The whole back end of the Material Service has been blown apart and there are two stories about how that happened," Tapper said. "One story has it that the Coast Guard dynamited it to allow for boat travel through the channel. Others claim the ship contained a pair of strong boxes loaded with the crew's payroll, which was then blown apart by some money-hungry divers."
Tapper said even if the buried treasure rumor were true, no one got rich on the deal.
"Whatever was in those boxes was completely destroyed. They used too much dynamite," he said with a laugh.
"It's still a mystery today. No one has taken responsibility."
- Sun, 5/11/2003
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