Great Lakes Underwater Click on the photos below to see an enlarged version, with detailed description.

Diving the Michigan

The Michigan was built in 1881, along with a sister ship, the Wisconsin, for the Goodrich Steamship Lines. Both ships were designed by the legendary marine architect Frank Kirby, and built in Wyandotte Michigan by the Detroit Dry Dock Company. The ships were designed and built for the cross-lake trade between Grand Haven and Milwaukee. They were reported to have been the most luxurious passenger steamers on the Lakes at that time.

I first read about the shipwreck in the 1970’s in the James L. Elliott book “Red Stacks over the Horizon”. The book told the story of how the ship had gotten caught in the ice in the harsh winter of 1884, and how the ship had foundered when the ice broke up and started moving the following spring. The entire crew had walked to shore after spending a couple of months on the stranded steamer. The captain claimed the ship went down in 300 feet of water. I had hoped the wreck was actually shallower than that, maybe 180 feet, but over the years, any discussion with fellow divers would bring the reply: “She’s too deep to dive”. During a conversation with John Steele, at Whitefish Point, in the late 90‘s, I was told that he would have “gone for it” in the 1970’s, but it was too deep. I asked him if he thought it was in about 250 feet, and his reply was: “Deeper than that, I think!”.

Late in the summer of 2004, I got a call from my cave diving friend Jeff Vos. A local shipwreck research group, Michigan Shipwreck Research Associates (MSRA), had contacted him. They had been working for years with shipwreck historian Dave Trotter to search for wrecks off the Southwest coast of Michigan, between Holland and South Haven. Jeff told me they had a “deep hit” they wanted him to check out, and wanted to know if I would join him. I knew from local dive shop gossip that they were looking for the Michigan, so I agreed.

At an initial meeting to plan the dive I was shown a side scan image of the target we were to dive. The side scan was not real promising, a low flat wreck with no superstructure. The entire group figured it was a barge, but we needed to check it out anyway. Jeff and I did two dives to 250 feet, documenting and videotaping an empty modern steel barge 200 feet long and 40 feet wide.

In the spring of 2005, Jeff got another call from MSRA. They had linked up with the author Clive Cussler to try and find the remains of flight 2501, a DC-4 that had gone missing over Lake Michigan on June 24, 1950. In a 1952 book titled “Shipwrecks of the Lakes, Dana Thomas Bowen uses the disappearance of the DC-4 as an introduction to the story of the shipwreck of the Chicora, in a chapter titled “The new and the old”. The MSRA has been looking for the Chicora for many years and actually thought they had found it in 270 feet of water, a few years back.  Once the numbers got out and divers were able to visit the wreck, it was found to be the lost steam barge H.C. Akeley. The Chicora remains missing today despite many hours of research and side scan effort by quite a few individuals over the last thirty years or so.

Cussler pursued his interest in flight 2501 by hiring Ralph Wilbanks, the man who found the Confederate submarine CSS Hunley, to search the bottom off South Haven. Ralph used a new digital side scan unit, linked to a laptop computer with image enhancing software. Over the next four weekends Jeff and I dropped on anything that looked interesting to Ralph. We documented an old wooden cabin cruiser (obviously scuttled); a tree; and we scootered over a large area that seemed interesting on the side scan, but turned out to be a series of zebra mussel-covered rocks on a flat silt bottom. Using the digital software and GPS, which calculated the exact location of the sonar “fish behind the boat, Ralph was able to place a shot line within five feet of the any area he deemed interesting.

By far the best find was the aft third of the old railroad car ferry Ann Arbor #5. The old ferry, used as temporary dock during the construction of the Palisades Nuclear Energy plant in the late 1960’s, was wrecked in a winter storm. The wreck was dismantled the following spring, but the aft portion of the barge was lost in 150 feet of water as it was towed to the scrapper. The barge rises out of the Lake bottom at about a thirty-degree angle. The twin 12-foot props and rudder can still be seen in about 130 feet. This wreck was reportedly originally found by the late diver/hunter Dick Race.

divers on mooring line Ann Arbor 5 prop

One week after the group failed to find any evidence of the missing DC-4, MSRA began the 2005 search for the Michigan off Holland with Dave Trotter. The search progressed over the next week; word was that they were finding nothing. I had pretty much figured it was a bust for another year, but woke up on Monday morning to a message from Jeff: they had found it on the last afternoon of the 2005 search. I called Jeff and found that John Steele had been right, it was deeper than 250. The wreck rested on a flat area off Holland in 270 feet of water, pretty close to the captain's estimate of 300 feet. The next step would be to design the dive and blend gas. First. though, we had to talk. MSRA was throwing a third diver into the team.

One of the biggest problems with mixed gas diving is that there is no set way to do it. A person can plan any number of mixes for bottom and decompression, using a number of different decompression tables, to do a given dive. Add to this the large ego of the average deep diver and you have a recipe for controversy. I like to do it my way. Jeff likes to do it his way, and now we were going to do the first drop with Todd White. I knew Todd would want to dive his way. Jeff called later in the week with good news: “I talked with him, and he’s not GUE!”.

Global Underwater Explorers (GUE) is a cave diving training agency out of Florida. Of all the agencies they are the most fundamentalist in their approach to training, specifying gear configurations and procedures down to the most minute detail. Their members are trained to not get into water with any other diver who isn’t an adherent to their religion. The training they provide is excellent, but after 40 years in the Great Lakes, I have my own set of traditions and methods. I am not GUI, and neither is Jeff!

Jeff had talked to Todd enough to know that his methods were different from what we using.  I suggested all three of us plan our own unique dives and use gases and tables we were most comfortable with. We would drop together, hit the ascent line together, then be on our own for decompression. Jeff agreed.

The three of us met at Jeff’s machine shop on Thursday night, and blended gas to our three different recipes. Saturday at 11:00 we loaded gear into Todd’s boat in Saugatuck. Motoring through the channel into Lake Michigan, we found flat water and clear sky. It took an hour to get to the site, and another hour to hook the wreck. The temperature was in the 90’s. I was the first to get into the water, and got pretty overheated waiting on the surface for the others. That would quickly change as the three of us dropped down the line and through a thermocline into 38-degree water. 

As we descended, the water turned from bright green-blue, to green, dark jade, and finally black. I turned my cave light on at 190 feet. Jeff was just below me, and Todd was filming beside me. At 220 feet the side of the wreck materialized in Jeff’s beam just below me. The line had dragged into the side of the ship, and Jeff stopped on the top deck to secure it with a lanyard and strobe. I passed by him down the side of the ship and over to an open port. We had agreed before the dive to do a preliminary search of the top deck, with no penetrations. I shined my light into what we later would determine to be the main cargo loading port on the side of the ship. Looking in, I could see that the hatch on the opposite side was also open across 40 feet of empty cargo deck. To the right and left were square deck hatches leading to the lower cargo hold. Winches were placed between square pillars running between the decks. Overhead, large wooden rollers were hung to rope cargo in and out of the lower hold. In all directions, the deck was completely empty as far as my beam would reach. It was obvious from the curve of the hull that we had landed on the port side. Jeff and Todd started for the bow above. I swam down the side of the ship until I passed small rectangular window looking into the forward anchor windlass room. I then popped up and over the rail onto the main deck. Jeff and Todd were exploring two large anchors just inside the bow. I went over to the capstan about fifty feet aft. I knew the cover on the capstan would be engraved with the ship’s name, but that name was encrusted with 120 years of mud and zebra mussels. I started to clean the top carefully, but visibility soon dropped to zero. Todd would film the cover on the next dive positively identifying the ship as the Michigan.

Having destroyed any chance for further video in the bow area, we headed aft over the top deck. All the passenger cabins on the top deck have collapsed in a pile of wood and mud. The pilothouse has dropped into this mess leaving a large double wheel above the debris. I had missed the wheel on my trip forward, but now passed over it and the broken stub of the main mast as I swam aft.  The cabin roof was still pretty intact, with lifeboat davits folded over and in. We found the stack still attached to the boiler below, but folded and lying across the main deck. I dropped over the stern and found the ship was sitting in the mud up to the water line. No prop or rudder would be seen on this wreck. Coming around the port side on my way back to the line, I found another side hatch open; this one back in the engineering space. Shining my light inside I could see a hallway, and the back of the engine through a partially collapsed bulkhead. Bottom time was up, so it was back to the line and 90 minutes of decompression.

Over the rest of the summer Jeff, Todd and I would log seven more dives on the Michigan. We would get into the inside spaces and explore where no person has set foot for 120 years. My best discovery would be on the third dive, where I would stumble on an intact room just behind the engine used for maintaining the ship's oil lamps. The door was propped open by two feet of silt on the floor. Above the door a small window on a tilting frame obviously ventilated the small cramped space. Looking though the door, I found a rack on the right wall with six spare lamps. At the back was a workbench. A drawer had dropped out into the sea of mud below, who knows how many years ago. On the bench, under a thick layer of silt, I could see spare globes. On the wall to the left of the bench was a large oil lamp. The lamp seemed oversize for this small space. (Maybe it’s the 19th century version of the large florescent lamp hanging over my workbench.)  Just inside the door, half buried, was an oil drum with a faucet used for filling the lamps. All of us would return to this space that we would name: “The lantern room”.

It’s strange, but shortly after finding this room, it started to haunt me in my dreams. I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I started seeing the ship as it had been: steaming across Lake Michigan on a hot summer evening, the yellow orange glow of oil lamps reflecting off dark water. The room seemed to personify the era of horse drawn coaches and gas lit streets. I realized that, 120 years ago, someone had walked out and left the last of his work still on the bench. I had dropped through 270 feet of cold Lake Michigan water, back 120 years in time into a world before cars, computers, and electric lights.

I have not gone into the room, and my hope is that others will leave it as I found it.

Story and photos ©2005 J.R. Underhill Communications

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