By Valerie van Heest

Cover Photo by Valerie van Heest, all others by Robert Underhill

Over the last decade, Michigan Shipwreck Research Associates, working with shipwreck hunter David Trotter and author/explorer Clive Cussler, has located more than a dozen new deep-water shipwrecks in southeastern Lake Michigan.
“What shipwrecks are on your side of the lake?” I asked my soon-to-be husband upon my impending move from Chicago on the southwestern side of the Lake Michigan to Holland, Michigan, on the southeastern side. His answer, “Well…not much,” gave me reason for pause (although I still married him). The waters off Chicago had offered a treasure-trove of dive sites -- too many to see over the decade I had spent documenting shipwrecks with the Underwater Archaeological Society, an organization I co-founded. Little did I know that Jack and I would set out on a course that would change the sorry-state of diving in southwestern Lake Michigan. A decade later, Southeastern Lake Michigan has become a tech-diving Mecca with thirteen new deep-water shipwrecks that provide a glimpse back at the evolution of Great Lakes shipping from the earliest schooners to the modern self-unloaders.
Wreck diving is a sport to be shared, and early on we formed Michigan Shipwreck Research Associates, a non-profit volunteer organization dedicated to interpreting our submerged maritime history. Although wreck hunting is typically conducted by divers willing to spend the money and effort to find new dive sites, we pioneered a new concept: accepting donations to fund searching, repaying the public with informative programs and shipwreck locations. We initiated a partnership with the Lakes most successful wreck hunter, David Trotter of Canton, Michigan. MSRA would conduct research, define a search area, provide boat and crew -- Trotter would contribute his side scan sonar and expertise.

Unlike many places in the Great Lakes where high concentrations of shipwrecks exist in localized areas near a busy commercial port, the ships gone missing here did so along a one-hundred mile stretch of unsheltered shoreline bounded by the St. Joseph on the south and Muskegon on the north. During the first years exploring these vast waters, we focused on searching for southern Lake Michigan’s Holy Grail, the Chicora, a passenger steamer lost with all hands between Milwaukee and St. Joseph in an 1895 snowstorm. After three expeditions in sport diving depths, we became convinced that the Chicora, as well as a host of other lost vessels, went down in much deeper water, prompting us to team with local technical divers, They encouraged us to begin tri-mix training. Continuing our quest for the Chicora in 2001, we finally got lucky. The side scan recorded a big target in 275 feet of water off Saugatuck Michigan.
The First Discovery

Dives on the wreck proved we had instead found the H. C. Akeley. In 1883 this two-year-old wooden freighter left Chicago with a load of corn destined for Buffalo, New York, sailing into building seas and an unusually convoluted situation. In mid-lake, they encountered the tug Protection towing the foundering schooner Arab, then watched as the hawser broke and became entangled in the propeller. The Akeley took the Protection in tow, but rough seas swamped both vessels, separating them. Seeing the schooner Driver on the horizon, the Akeley’s crew debated how to save themselves: launch the life boat or wait for the Driver to rescue them. The six men who chose to stay on the foundering Akeley perished. The twelve men who initiated their own rescue survived.

The Akeley sits upright and intact on the bottom. Like many wrecks, it is embedded into the lake bottom up to its waterline. The pilothouse and aft deckhouse were ripped off in the sinking, but this affords access to below-deck areas. While it seems the hold has silted in, this is just a thin layer over the corn cargo. Two fallen masts, rigging, winches, and equipment litter the deck. The engine and boiler are prominent features.

The Hamilton

Side scan involves not only patience, but methodical record keeping while searching in a pattern akin to mowing the lawn. During previous expeditions, we had inadvertently missed a narrow, half-mile section. Imagine our surprise when a target appeared revealing a mid-sized schooner, 270 feet deep. Before our dive team splashed, we knew this wreck would be difficult to identify because so many schooners went missing in this area.

Eventually its dimensions would point us to the Hamilton, a 113-foot schooner built in 1847 in Ohio. Not only an example of the early schooners built for the grain trade, the Hamilton reminds us that as vessels aged, they were relegated to the lumber trade. Much of the timber cut from West Michigan’s forests in the mid-to-late nineteenth century shipped out on the Hamilton and vessels like it. In this capacity, the Hamilton headed to Chicago, but it sprang a leak in rough November seas in 1873. All seven men escaped in the yawl, reaching South Haven after seventeen miserable hours. Even though the wreck shows its age, it sits upright with two masts fallen to the starboard side. The deck is gone, blown off by the buoyant lumber, but the windlass and two big anchors are perched at the bow. The wreck is small enough to be able to see everything in one 20-minute dive.

The Michigan

In 2004, we turned our attention to the steamer Michigan, crushed by the ice in 1885, and an example of the luxurious passenger steamers so prolific in the late nineteenth century. Built in 1881, it ferried members of the middle class across the lake to enjoy something rather new at the time -- vacations. Tourists journeyed from the congested cities of Chicago and Milwaukee to the wide open, sandy shores of Michigan. The Michigan also sported a new development: steel hull cladding allowing it to operate year-round, breaking through ice as needed. In February 1885, its owners sent the Michigan out to free the steamer Oneida trapped by ice. The rescuer became the victim when the weather worsened and trapped the Michigan too. After a forty-day ordeal, the 25-man crew survived by following the brave, young porter George Sheldon on a trek across the ice to shore. We thought this would be an easy find since the crew reported the ship went down in 300 feet off Holland. We were wrong.

It would take three seasons of searching, and time wasted when we stumbled upon a commercial barge scuttled in 250-feet, before we finally found the Michigan in 275-feet. Everything we had learned about the forty-day ordeal is evidenced on the wreck. Its hull sits upright and intact, although the pilothouse, cabins and smokestack lay fallen, probably upon impact with the bottom. Divers may penetrate into the empty lower holds, where they will find themselves deeper than the lake bottom itself. The galley welcomes “guests” to a space where the crew huddled around the warm stove during the long winter. The engine room is accessible through an open gangway hatch at the stern, across from which is a workroom containing a bench, oil dispensers and seven brass lanterns on a shelf. Undoubtedly George Sheldon stood at that very workbench filling lanterns.
The Henenpin

Fresh from the Michigan discovery, we headed to South Haven in search of the Hennepin, a barge lost in August 1927. Having had its engine removed to accommodate more cargo, it was returning under tow by the Lotus from Chicago to Grand Haven after delivering a load of stone when due to a pump failure, it took on water and “sank in 203-feet,” according to Captain Hansen who returned with his crew on board Lotus. Indeed, 79 years after its sinking, Hansen led us right there, although in 230-feet rather than 203. Not only is this an exciting dive site, but research shows this to be one of the Great Lakes most significant shipwrecks.

On the 79th anniversary of the Hennepin’s sinking, I made my first non-training tri-mix dive. Wearing 85 Cu. Ft. steel doubles and carrying a 40 Cu. Ft. nitrox deco bottle, I headed down the line. Visibility was exceptional and nearly 70 feet above the wreck, I could see the Hennepin sitting upright in great condition. At 170 feet, I reached the standing gantry, the most prominent feature on the wreck. I glided down the cross-braced, massive structure, and finally reached the deck. My light illuminated a structure running horizontally down the center of the boat over open hatches, clearly the skeleton of a conveyor. Although the engine had been previously removed the boiler remained to power deck equipment, and sits within a boilerhouse with two standing ventilators. Only the smokestack has toppled onto the deck.

During our 45-minute decompression, I had time to contemplate the wreck. My mind wandered to the big boats called self-unloaders, so prolific on the lakes today. The equipment on this wreck looks very similar to these contemporary bulk carriers, which most sources indicate originated with the steel-hulled Wyandotte in 1906. The Hennepin had been built in 1888 and I learned that owners had installed an A-frame and simple conveyor belt to unload limestone in 1902, fully four years prior to the Wyandotte’s construction. Although the Hennepin had never been touted as an historically important ship, we solidified its significance as the world’s first self-unloader and model for those that followed. It would take less than a year, working with historian, and soon to be book partner, William Lafferty, to nominate the Hennepin to the National Register of Historic Places.
Search and Discovery with Clive Cussler

In the fall of 2004, things got exciting when nationally-acclaimed author and world-renowned shipwreck hunter Clive Cussler contacted us to propose a joint venture to find Northwest flight 2501, a DC-4 that had crashed in Lake Michigan in 1950 killing 58 individuals -- the worst US aviation disaster at the time. Although familiar with the accident, we did not have access to the 500 KHz tow fish necessary to locate what might remain-- small bits of debris and four propeller engines. Cussler agreed to send his sonar expert, the former South Carolina State Archaeologist, Ralph Wilbanks with whom he had discovered several wrecks including their most famous, the submarine HMS Hunley. Wilbanks told us simply, “When Clive says ‘fetch,’ I fetch.” As with Trotter, we would provide the research, boat and crew.

Our first expedition was a bust, but Cussler sent Wilbanks back the next spring. Fast forward to 2009….After five annual, month-long surveys, Wilbanks has covered more than 200 square miles and discovered seven shipwrecks, plus a tree, some boulders, an anchor, and an old dock piling. In-other-words: everything except the airplane!
Ann Arbor No. 5 and a power boat

In 2006, Wilbanks got quite a surprise when his tow fish just missed slamming into a huge wreck in 160 feet. We had no idea that this discovery would rewrite the history books. Within a few days, we made a dive and later identified it as the aft section of the car ferry Ann Arbor No. 5, recorded as being scrapped in the 70s. Our research led us to a marine contractor who actually lost the vessel while under tow to the scrap yard. Impaled in the bottom at a steep angle, the wreck’s two huge props are very photogenic. The site is great for training, as the stern can be reached at 120 feet and divers can follow train tracks downward along the inclined deck. That same year, we discovered a 26-foot Cris Craft, scuttled in 200 feet of water.
Joseph P. Farnan and A.P. Dutton

In 2008, Cussler himself joined the search effort. A humble man despite national fame as an author, Cussler told us, “I just like to solve mysteries.” He was on board when Wilbanks located a wooden steamer, and then on the same pass a half-mile north, a small schooner. Dives to the sites a few days later revealed the charred hull of the Joseph P. Farnan in 160 feet of water off South Haven, where a boiler, engine, and anchor provide the most distinct features remaining after the fire which destroyed the vessel while on a run from St. Joseph to Escanaba, Michigan in 1889. The nearby wreck provided our biggest identification challenge yet. At sixty feet long, only a cathead and the shape identifies it as a schooner, possibly the A.P Dutton, lost in a horrific storm in 1869 while carrying a cargo of schoolhouse furniture from Chicago to St. Joseph.

William Tell, Hattie Wells and Barge

In 2009, again with Cussler on board, Wilbanks located another sixty-foot schooner. Only two, small, two-masted schooners went down off West Michigan, the A.P. Dutton, (above), and the William Tell lost a year earlier. Our dive to this 200-foot-deep wreck instantly revealed the Tell. Nestled down into the bottom sits the lower hull of a perfectly-shaped schooner with both masts fallen forward, and sides burned down to the level of the cargo, revealing a white substance still mounded in the hull. Perhaps the most unusual cause for a sinking ever, a chemical reaction sank the Tell. Water leaked into the hold and combined with the cargo of lime destined for St. Joseph. The wet lime began smoldering in the August heat, eventually igniting the deck. Fortunately, the crew had time to launch the yawl and row 25 miles to shore.

Two days later Cussler found another wreck, this one clearly the Hattie Wells. This three-masted schooner had been cut down to a barge and lost in a 1912 storm. At 250 feet deep, it abounds with features, including anchors, windlass, masts and rigging. Cussler was still on board a week later when hoping to find the Chicora, he instead discovered a small barge in 125 feet, the victim of teen vandalism in 1968.

Over the last decade searching with David Trotter and Clive Cussler, we have discovered over a dozen shipwrecks. However, the Chicora and Flight 2501, as Clive Cussler says, “are not yet ready to be found.” That’s OK because the shipwrecks here are a unique collection representing almost every vessel type to sail the Great Lakes, most with a great deal of historical significance, including the Hennepin, now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. These wrecks also illustrate the many different reasons ships sink: from fire, ice, and storm to mechanical failure and even purposeful scuttle. They are in fantastic state of preservation, in waters that often offer in excess of one-hundred-foot visibility. For advanced technical divers, it doesn’t get much better than this!

An inducted in the Women Divers Hall of Fame, and an-award winning author and exhibit designer, Valerie van Heest (pictured here with author Clive Cussler) has written, Icebound: The Adventures of Young George Sheldon and the SS Michigan, about her teams discovery of that wreck, and Buckets and Belts, inspired by the discovery of the Hennepin, co-authored with William Lafferty. Coordinates can be found at

For charters, equipment, gas fills and service in the area, contact Tim Marr, Advance Scuba in Holland, Michigan: