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History Abounds in the Waters Surrounding Isle Royale National Park


Park Service divers in September checked on the condition of several historic wrecks in the waters of Isle Royale National Park, including the wreck of the America. NPS photo.

Most of us head to national parks to walk across the landscape, but for those skilled at diving, some treasures otherwise lost to history can be found. In the waters surrounding Isle Royale National Park, for instance, are a number of wrecks that date back to the late 1800s.

There's even the skeleton of a freighter that went down with a "load of iron ore," though it's not the SS Edmund Fitzgerald made famous by the Gordon Lightfoot song.

As Rick Smith told us back in August, Isle Royale is well-known with the diving community.

Skin Diver, at one time the top US-based sport-diving magazine, listed Isle Royale as one of the top seven diving sites in the world. The extremely cold water in Lake Superior has created an ideal environment for the ten major ship wrecks that lie under the surface of the waters adjacent to the park. They are remarkably preserved due to the frigid, fresh water. All diving in the park is concentrated on these ghosts of the past. Diving inland in the park is prohibited; the many inlets and coves often have artifacts that the park is protecting for future archeological documentation.

This past September, members of the National Park Service's Submerged Resources Center team spent quite a few hours off the shore of Isle Royale inspecting some of the wrecks and documenting what remains of them. Here's a rundown from the Park Service on what they found.

This ... project was part of a larger, system-wide effort to collect baseline information about the condition of archeological sites – both above and below water – in our national parks. Members of the park’s dive team, working in partnership with SRC divers, examined and documented the most intact collection of shipwrecks in the National Park System. Preserved by the cold, fresh waters of Lake Superior, the shipwrecks and submerged terrestrial sites offer amazing insights into Great Lakes shipping, commercial fishing and the early settlement of Isle Royale.

The image above is from the wreck of America, a passenger/package freight vessel built in 1898. It operated for 30 years transporting people and goods before it struck a reef outside Washington Harbor on Isle Royale, on June 6, 1928. The wreck lies against a steep underwater cliff and reaches a maximum depth of 85 feet. This image shows SRC’s Video Ray Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) and SRC archeologist Andres Diaz at the foot of the main salon staircase. The ROV is a tool that enables the SRC to examine and discuss submerged shipwreck sites while on the surface. On America, the ROV allowed the team to view one of the most popular dive sites in the park and to speak with representatives of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Preservation Society, who have been working for 12 years to stabilize the wreck, reattach dislodged pieces, and mitigate entrapment hazards to visiting divers.

Other wrecks investigated at Isle Royale in September included the following:

* Chisolm, a wooden bulk freighter that was built in 1880 and ran aground in the predawn hours of October 20, 1898. Large sections of the wooden hull lie scattered among the remains of another wreck, Cumberland, which hit Rock of Ages Reef on July 25, 1877. The reef is now marked by the Rock of Ages Lighthouse. This site features an intact steam engine with drive shaft and propeller sitting in about 140 feet of water. The double expansion steam engine stands about 20 feet tall and, in near perfect condition, is framed in ornate iron work. The engine has two pistons, one 30 inches and the other 56 inches in diameter that operated with a four foot stroke.

* Glenlyon, a 328-foot bulk freighter, built in 1893. It ran aground in the early morning hours of November 1, 1924 while seeking shelter in the Siskwit Bay from fall storms. The wreckage consists of a windlass located on the intact bow of the ship and many sections of the metal hull scattered across the bottom for a distance of 900 feet with the stern section and machinery on the seaward side of the shoal ridge. The formation of the site graphically demonstrates the natural forces affecting Lake Superior shipwrecks. During the current investigations, the team discovered that a large boiler mapped by the SRC in the 1980s moved from a ridge above the reef where it originally came to rest to the inside of the ridge near where the intact bow section lies. This boiler moved approximately 80 feet to its present location, likely a result of ice floes over the site which can move shallow and lighter parts of the hull, creating a dynamic environment which moves pieces of shipwrecks long after they have come to rest on the bottom. Despite the disarticulation of the remains, most elements of the wreck are easily identified because they are not far removed from their structural location in the vessel.

* Emperor, a 525-foot steel bulk freighter built in Canada in 1907. The vessel met its demise in the early morning darkness of June, 1947 while carrying a load of iron ore. Principal blame was placed with the First Mate for not keeping "proper watch." This was later modified when investigators discovered that the prevailing system required him to be in charge of loading when he should have been off-duty. The investigation concluded that he was overtired from lack of sleep. Out of this accident came the practice of today's Great Lakes’ sailors, who work on a four-hours-on, eight-hours-off schedule.


I would add that the fishing for Lake Trout off the reefs on the north end of the island is outstanding.

Unfortunately, in my 12 years as a Deputy Medical Examiner for Keewenaw County Michigan (1988-2000), I had the occasion to perform two autopsies on divers who were killed diving the wreck of the Emperor. Suffice it to say that both divers were inexperienced in doing deep dives in cold water, and this inexperience led to their death. One aspirated water while at depth and continued to ascend while coughing uncontrollably and gave himself a pneumothorax. The other was insufficiently weighted for a 7 mm wetsuit and suffered an air embolus while free ascending too fast. He sank to the bottom and then suffered massive injuries to his lungs when he was brought to the top without breathing.

The take home message I wish to impart (I'm a PADI certified diver as well) is that if you are going to dive in cold water and you have no previous experience, be sure and do some shallow dives first and get used to the cold water and the thick wetsuits; and make sure you have determined the proper weighting for your weight belt as required by the thick wetsuit. Also, you should practice breathing through a free flowing regulator in case you should find yourself with a frozen open regulator. Luckily, this is not as common with today's gear as it used to be. If you don't mind the cold water, the diving is fantastic, but Mother Superior can be very unforgiving should you make any errors.

November 10 - Edmund Fitzgerald Memorial Service
. A memorial service for the men lost on the Edmund Fitzgerald will be held on November 10 at Dr. Henri Belanger Park in River Rouge, Mi. The service will be held near the Mariners Memorial Lighthouse beginning at 6:00 p.m. The tug boat will be on hand to take out a wreath to be placed on the river. The service will feature a plaque presentation, bell ringing, lantern lighting, and refreshments will be served. For more information call Roscoe Clark at 810-519-2148 or Dolores Swekel 313-842-7822.

The service will be at River Rouge Michigan on the Detroit River next to where the ship was built at the slips and on the other side is where Zug Island is located. MAP

A special Edmund Fitzgerald open house
will be open to the pubic from 3:00 pm to 5:00 pm at the River Rouge Historical Museum

River Rouge Historical Museum
10750 W. Jefferson Ave.
River Rouge, Michigan 48218
(Formerly Gallagher Funeral Home)

November 10, 2010
Edmund Fitzgerald Memorial Service in River Rouge
S. S. Edmund Fitzgerald 5th Service in River Rouge, Michigan
6:00 pm to 8:00 pm Wednesday November 10, 2010

35th Edmund Fitzgerald Memorial Service
RIVER ROUGE, MICHIGAN — A memorial service is planned for Wednesday November 10, 2010 to remember the 29 men who died when the SS Edmund Fitzgerald sank in Lake Superior on Nov. 10, 1975.

The ceremony is set for 6 to 8 p.m. near the Mariners Memorial Lighthouse at Belanger Park, off Belanger Park Drive and Marion.

The event is held in River Rouge because that’s the city where the vessel was built in 1957 and ’58.

Several speakers will give their memories of the ship, including people who helped construct it and relatives of some of the deceased crewmen.

Artifacts and photographs also will be on display.

At 7:10 p.m. — the time the ship sank — a wreath will be tossed into the Detroit River. A bell will be rung 29 times in memory of each person who died.

A plaque presentation and lantern lighting is planned. Refreshments will be provided at the end.

Event organizer Roscoe Clark has a Web site devoted to the vessel, which contains several video clips, photos and new information about the ship, at

Earlier in the day, an Edmund Fitzgerald open house will be held from 3 to 5 p.m. at the River Rouge Historical Museum, 10750 W. Jefferson Ave.

For more information on either event, visit the Web site or call Clark at 1-810-519-2148 or Dolores Swekel at 1-313-842-7822.

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