10 Great Lakes Shipwrecks: A Dive into History’s Aquatic Graveyard

10 Great Lakes Shipwrecks A Dive into History's Aquatic Graveyard - Merchant Navy Info - Blog

Shipwrecks at sea are not new. Storms, icebergs, and many other natural and man-made disasters have left thousands of Famous shipwrecks on the ocean floor. However, it is not at sea or at sea that ships experience accidents. In some freshwater bodies around the world, large numbers of ships have sunk and lie underwater for years. North America’s Great Lakes are one such important freshwater body. The Great Lakes are located in North America on the border between Canada and the United States. And form an important domestic shipping route for the Central North American region.

The Great Lakes are connected to the Atlantic Ocean through the St. Lawrence River. And consist of five bodies of water, including Lake Superior, Lake Huron, Lake Michigan, Lake Erie, and Lake Ontario. The world’s largest body of freshwater lakes by area. The Great Lakes, has a rich history of maritime transportation dating back to the 17th century. However,  these waterways are not easy to cross, and in the past. Many ships have run aground and become irretrievably lost in the deep, swirling waters. 


These waters, also known as inland seas, have ocean-like characteristics such as rolling waves, strong currents, and great depths, making for difficult times for sailors navigating the region. Numerous wrecks of such unfortunate ships were discovered in the Great Lakes, giving rise to the term “Great Lakes shipwrecks.” There is also a wonderful museum that has been established as an educational memorial to these Great Lakes shipwrecks. According to one of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, the lake sank approximately 6,000 ships and killed 30,000 people. However, historian Mark Thompson,  author of Lake Graveyard, estimates that at the bottom of the Great Lakes, there are more than 25,000 famous shipwrecks. Some of the Great Lakes shipwrecks are now popular diving spots because of the interesting stories behind their sinkings. Below is a list of ten of these notable Great Lakes shipwrecks.

Le Griffon 

Le Griffon is his 17th-century bark, and is one of the Great Lakes’ greatest mysteries. She disappeared in Lake Michigan with her six crew members in 1679. Le Griffon is believed to be the first full-size sailing ship to traverse the upper  Great Lakes of North America. Over 20 claims have been made in the past regarding her findings, most of which have been proven false. Built by French explorers René Robert Cavalier, Sieur de La Salle, and Le Griffon crossed Lake Erie and Lake Huron, arriving at Lake Michigan island in 1679.

However, during the return voyage from the island to Niagara, the ship went missing in the area now known as Green Bay.In 2001, Steve Libert, a well-known Great Lakes shipwreck hunter, discovered a shipwreck near Poverty Island in northern Lake Michigan. Similarly, in 2014, treasure hunters was Kevin Dykstra and Frederick J. Monroe claimed to have discovered a shipwreck near Frankfort, Michigan.

Edmund Fitzgerald 

Edmund Fitzgerald’s ship story is his one of the most frequently told anecdotes about Great Lakes shipwrecks. The Fitzgerald she was launched in 1958 and was the largest ship on the Great Lakes for her 13 years  until 1971. The American cargo ship Great Lakes was wrecked on Lake Superior in the winter of 1975, killing all on board. The ship was en route from Superior, Wisconsin, to a steel mill near Detroit when it encountered a severe storm and sank in Canadian waters. 

The exact cause of the ship’s sinking is still hotly debated, although there was no apparent sign of significant damage. The most likely theory is that the ship ran aground or was damaged during a storm. The wreckage of the   Edmund Fitzgerald was discovered by a U.S. Navy Lockheed P-3 Orion aircraft in the November 1975, approximately 25 miles west of Deadman’s Cove, Ontario. A notable find from the shipwreck is the ship’s gong, which is now proudly displayed in a shipwreck museum dedicated specifically to these Great Lakes victims and wrecks.

Carl D. Bradley

The SS Carl D. Bradley was a Great Lakes cargo ship built in 1927 and known as the “Queen of the Lakes” because she was the longest and largest cargo ship in the Great Lakes waters at the time. She was built by Ohio-based American Shipyards. This self-unloading freighter was operated by the Bradley Transportation and was used as both an the icebreaker and a freighter. In 1957, a collision with another ship, the MV White Rose, damaged her hull. 

The following year, the ship ran aground several times, but these incidents were not reported to the authorities. In November of the same year, she sank in Lake Michigan during a storm, killing 33 of her 35 crew members. The sinking of the ship was due to structural damage caused by the inappropriate selection of steel used in its construction. The wreckage of the Carl D. Bradley lies at a depth of 360 feet and was discovered by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1959.


The 282-foot bulk carrier Fedora was one of her class of large cargo ships in the late 19th century. Unfortunately, this ship suffered a fire accident in 1901 as she was en route  from Duluth to Ashland to transport iron ore. This was a journey similar  to that of the ill-fated Edmund Fitzgerald. The Fedora, one of the most robust ships of the time,  met an unprecedented fate when a fire broke out in the engine cabin. 

Although there were no casualties among her ship’s crew, she soon became a lost cause, as the Fedora burst into flames and eventually sank in the waters of Chicago Creek in Buffalo Bay. The wreck of the Great Lakes Fedora lies in the depths of Lake Superior. A salvage operation took place in November 1901, and important machinery was recovered for further use. A charred hull is a dangerous place for diving or boating, as ship debris can rise to the surface and cause damage to the ship.

John B. Kaul 

The seven-year-old SS John B. Caul, a member of the Great Lakes-class bulk carriers known as the “Tin Pan,” sank in 1909, along with the newly named freighter SS Isaac M. Scott. Involved in a devastating disaster. John B. Caul was severely damaged in a collision with another ship, killing 14 of her 24 crew members. Thick fog obstructed visibility, and the ships collided. However, the crashed ship helped rescue many survivors from the wrecked cowl ship. This shipwreck was discovered in 1972, and she is one of Lake Superior’s most famous and best-preserved famous shipwrecks. 

The surviving crew members were the rescued by SS Scott, and the death toll was lower than estimated. SS John B. Caul was involved in other minor accidents, including a collision with the SS Erin, which killed several crew members working on the Erin at the time. Built by Jenks Shipyards and operated by Kaul Shipping Company. Shortly after the sinking of the John B. Cowl, a second ship, the John B. Cowl, was commissioned in 1910. Her second ship was used successfully until 1978.


The steamer Vienna accidentally collided with another steamer coming from the opposite direction in September 1892, resulting in a fatal accident and being lost forever in the waters of Lake Superior. Built in 1873, Vienna  witnessed many accidents during its 19 years of construction. Three years after launch, she sank. In the previous incident, both the  Vienna and Nipigon ships were carrying cargoes of iron ore. It is believed that repeated repairs to her hull after repeated accidents weakened her structure and made her easily destroyed in a  collision with the Nipigon.

The other ship attempted to bring Vienna to safety, but her rescue efforts were unsuccessful due to her shallow waters. Thanks to Nipigon’s quick intervention, no lives were lost. At the time, the schooner Matti C. Bell was being towed from Vienna with a large cargo of iron ore. The bell survived the sinking. The ship’s wreckage was discovered in 1975 at a depth of 120 to 148 feet. The ruins of Vienna are located in Whitefish Bay, which is his famous diving spot. However, after four divers died, it became a protected and no-go area. It is now part of an underwater sanctuary established by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, and there are strict regulations on what artifacts divers can bring home

Lady Elgin

The Lady Elgin was a wooden-hulled steamship built in 1851 and operated as a passenger ship on the Great Lakes. On September 6, 1860, the ship sank in an unfortunate accident while returning from Chicago with members of the Milwaukee Union Guards after attending Stephen A. Kennedy’s campaign speech. In, the  252-foot Lady Elgin encountered a strong storm and was struck by the Oswego schooner Augusta. Unfortunately, due to damage from the collision, the ship sank a short time later, killing over 300 people. Although the exact figures remain in doubt as the manifest was lost in the accident, it remains one of the worst transport accidents in the region.

In 1989, the wreck of the Lady Elgin was discovered off the coast of Highwood, Illinois by Harry Zick. Despite being eligible, it is not listed on the National Register of Historic Places due to the owner’s objections. The Lady Elgin wreck site, whose wreckage is spread out in four locations at depths of 50 to 60 feet, has been cataloged by the Chicago Underwater Archeology Society. After the accident,  a clause was added to the Shipping Regulations requiring ships to be equipped with running lights to prevent such accidents. A subsequent investigation revealed that the other vessel misjudged the distance between the vessels, leading to the fatal accident.

Samuel Mather 

The  SS Samuel Mather is  another example of two ships colliding  in the treacherous waters of Whitefish Bay on the U.S.-Canada border. Early in the morning in November 1981, Samuel Mather was transporting wheat from the port of Duluth when he collided with the steamer Brazil,  due to heavy fog on Lake Superior. The entire crew of the Samuel Mather was safely rescued by the steamer Brazil. 

Today, the wreck of the Mother lies in 50 feet of water 29 miles from  Whitefish Point Harbor. Samuel Mather is one of the most important exploration and diving locations for enthusiasts, especially due to its location. It is also nearly intact, giving divers the opportunity to safely explore the wreck without fear of injury.  Whitefish Point Marine Sanctuary manages the wreck site, and artifacts are on display at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum. However, there have been repeated attempts to steal the artifacts, and the state of Michigan now owns them.

Prince Willem V 

The 258-foot cargo ship Prince Willem V sank in Lake Michigan in October 1964 after sailing the Orange Line between Europe and the United States since 1949. Built by the Van Vlier Company, her Prins survived a Nazi bombing attempt and was converted for commercial use in 1949. A Dutch cargo ship capsized after colliding with a  Sinclair Oil Company barge five miles from the Port of Milwaukee. All crew members on board the ship were rescued.

After the accident, he made several unsuccessful attempts to salvage the ship in 1958, 1961, and several times after 1965, but all failed. Ownership of the Pudding was transferred several times between owners in order to salvage the ship safely. The wreck is currently owned and operated by the state of Wisconsin. It is a famous diving spot. The Prince Willem V shipwreck, known as “Willie,” lies intact on its starboard side in about 80 feet of water and is one of Milwaukee’s most famous shipwrecks.

John M. Osborn 

The last ship on this list of Great Lakes shipwrecks is the wooden steam barge John M. Osborn, which wrecked at Whitefish Point in 1884. It was built by the Morley and Hill Company of Michigan and commissioned by the Cleveland Iron Mining Company. Like many of the ships mentioned above, the misty and foggy conditions made it impossible to avoid the approaching ships, resulting in a collision between the John M. Osborne and the steel-hulled Alberta, and the Osborne The ship was fatally injured. Some of the crew were killed in an accident at the end of the 19th century. 

The wreckage of the John M. Osborne was discovered in 1984, 100 years after the accident, at a depth of 165 feet in Lake Superior’s Whitefish Bay. A Shipwreck Museum and Endowment Society was established so that enthusiasts could learn more about these shipwrecks. Such specific organisations aim to reach a wider range of details and knowledge about these shipwrecks. In addition, these organisations also protect cultural monuments and underwater sanctuaries where diving enthusiasts can admire shipwrecks from around the world.

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