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Shipwrecks No Longer Lost to History
Alpena’s Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary
By Rene Rosencrantz Wheaton
Seemingly lost to history, hundreds of ships lay at the bottom of Thunder Bay, victims of a lake that too often became a thrashing sea. But those destructive waters have also worked to preserve their prey. Today, shipwrecks spanning from the 1840s to the 1960s are protected as part of the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary. “It’s really like a national park spanning 450 square miles in Lake Huron, where we are working to preserve and protect a spectacular collection of shipwrecks,” said Jeff Gray, the superintendent of the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary.
The Thunder Bay Sanctuary is one of 14 national marine sanctuaries and the only one in the Great Lakes. “It has a huge impact on Alpena,” said Alpena’s Mayor Carol Shafto. “It’s a unique draw. There is not another sanctuary like it anywhere. It’s the only national fresh water sanctuary and it’s the only one dedicated to preserving a collection of shipwrecks. It draws visitors from the state, the nation, and even internationally.” First established in 2000, the sanctuary and its visitor facility the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center, 500 W. Fletcher in Alpena, attract approximately 70,000 visitors a year.
Deb Pardike, executive director of the Alpena Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the sanctuary is at the center of its efforts to promote Alpena as a maritime heritage destination. “We’re able to promote the sanctuary and at the same time, promote our lighthouses and our community,” Pardike said.
The area was so prolific in its ability to claim the ships traversing its waters that it became known as “Shipwreck Alley.” More than 200 ships are thought to rest at the bottom of the bay, but only a little more than half of those have been located. “We have a unique range of shipwrecks…some are in shallow water and some are very deep,” Gray said. “There are ships that are very early and there are more modern craft, well-preserved at the bottom of the lake.”
Because of Lake Huron’s cold, fresh water, the shipwrecks found on its floor have escaped the corrosive elements that have eaten away at ships resting in warm and salty waters. Lake Huron’s waters also have great visibility, making shipwrecks in shallow depths visible to those in kayaks on the lake’s surface.
While avid divers knew of the historical treasures at the bottom of Thunder Bay, it was less known with the general public. “Getting the area established as a National Marine Sanctuary has really raised awareness across the country and even the world,” Gray said. “We’ve had visitors from all over including Europe and Asia.”
Attractions for Everyone
Among the favorites is an exhibit featuring a life-size section of a schooner where people can relive what it would have been like to be tossed on Lake Huron’s stormy waves. “It gives people a chance to experience a particular culture,” Pardike said. “They can hop on board the schooner and see what is was like to be aboard a ship. A visitor can grab the wheel and pretend to captain the ship through a violent Lake Huron Storm.” The experience is quite convincing; Gray said they’ve even had a few people become sea sick.
“We also have what we call ‘dive tubes’ that the kids can crawl through, they are clear and they simulate what it is like to dive over a shipwreck,” he said. “I say kids, but we had a 93-yearold crawl through them. They are fun for everyone."
In addition, a new glass bottom boat, www.alpenashipwrecktours.com, will begin tours in June. It will give an even wider audience a chance to experience the historical treasures found on the lake floor. “We’re very excited about the new glass bottom boat,” said Shafto. “Not everyone is a diver—I’m not a diver. This gives visitors one more way to experience the shallow wrecks.”
While much of the sanctuary’s job is about the past—highlighting and preserving it, Gray sees it playing an important role in Alpena’s future, too. “Shipping is still so critical to a state. It still is playing an important role culturally and commercially and I hope that the sanctuary brings that to people’s attention.” Gray said.
Rene Rosencrantz Wheaton is a freelance writer. You may contact her at 810-444-3827.