If you’re a fan of the history and mysteries behind shipwrecks, one national marine sanctuary has you covered. Located in Lake Huron, Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary protects one of the best-preserved and nationally-significant shipwreck collections in the United States. Unpredictable weather, murky fog banks, sudden gales, and rocky shoals earned the area the name “Shipwreck Alley.” Fire, ice, collision, and storms have claimed over 200 vessels in and around Thunder Bay. Today, the remains of these vessels represent a microcosm of Great Lakes maritime history. The cold, fresh water of Lake Huron has kept these wrecks largely intact even after a century or more beneath the waves. The wrecks within sanctuary waters are open to the public for diving, snorkeling, and paddling. Plus, seasonal mooring buoys improve access by providing a safe attachment point for boats that won’t damage the integrity of the wrecks.
Here are a few of the best if you’re diving the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary shipwrecks.
Joseph S. Fay
On October 19, 1905, the 216-foot bulk freighter Joseph S. Fay encountered a strong gale in northern Lake Huron. Fay hit the rocks at 40 Mile Point and quickly broke apart. Today, its lower hull sits in shallow water not far from the shore and still contains a load of iron ore. With a depth of only 17 feet (5 m), this wreck is perfect for novice divers, snorkelers, and paddlers.
William P. Rend
Throughout its career, William P. Rend went through a series of transformations. It was constructed in 1888 as a bulk freighter and originally named George G. Hadley. In 1902, it collided with the steamer Thomas Wilson, an event that sank both vessels. Hadley was recovered, rebuilt as a tow-barge, and rechristened William P. Rend. It carried stone in its final days, but foundered in Thunder Bay just outside of Alpena.
Today, the wreck is almost entirely intact; only decking and deck beams are missing. William P. Rend sits at only 17 feet (5 m) and portions of the sides are just below the surface. You can also see the shipwreck from a glass-bottom boat, making it a perfect way to introduce non-divers to the wonders of shipwrecks.
The wooden steam barge Monohansett burned to the water’s edge at Thunder Bay Island on November 23, 1907. Luckily, while most of the crew lost their personal belongings and some suffered minor burns, none lost their lives. The remains of Monohansett lie in three sections at a depth of 18 feet (5.5 m). The stern portion has hull features, a propeller, and shaft all in place, and the boiler rests nearby. Visitors can also see this shipwreck via glass-bottom boat.
A slightly deeper dive at 63 feet (19 m), Montana is a perfect wreck for intermediate divers. This wooden steam barge was originally a swift package freighter, rebuilt as a lumber carrier in 1909. On the way to Detroit from Georgian Bay to load lumber in 1914, Montana caught fire, burned to the water’s edge, and sank off Thunder Bay’s North Point.
Today, Montana’s bow is broken open, but the engine, boiler, shaft, and propeller are all in place. Curious divers can also find the windlass, capstan, and rudder lying among the wreckage.
D.M. Wilson was headed for Milwaukee with a load of coal when it sprang a leak and began sinking. A gale broke up the ship 10 days later. While salvagers removed much of the vessel’s machinery, most of Wilson’s hull remains intact today at a depth of 40 feet (12 m), including a large windlass that rests on the bow.
John L. Shaw
Winter is a treacherous time to navigate the Great Lakes. Bound for Chicago in 1894, the schooner John L. Shaw foundered in a blinding snowstorm, sinking in 128 feet (39 m) of water. The crew abandoned ship and drifted for several hours before a passing steamer rescued them.
A wrecking company found the Shaw a few years later, but the planned recovery never occurred. The wreck was forgotten until July 2007 when local fisherman John Gaulthier stumbled across the site while setting nets. The site is a jumble of wooden wreckage, with broken masts and spars strewn across intact decking. The starboard side of the hull has fallen away to reveal the massive coal cargo.
Cornelia B. Windiate
Cornelia B. Windiate offers those looking for a challenge a great technical dive. This wooden three-masted schooner launched in 1874 and disappeared in 1875, leaving behind a mystery. It was thought to have gone down in Lake Michigan, since it was spotted there in a November gale and was never seen again. But more than a century later, the wreck was discovered deep in Lake Huron’s waters.
Windiate is in nearly perfect condition at a depth of 180 feet (55 m). Its masts remain upright; the cabin is intact; and the yawl boat lies alongside the stern. Maritime archaeologists think it sank when heavy seas covered the decks in ice, causing it to settle slowly to the bottom of the lake. No sign of its eight crew members has ever been found.
If you’re seeking a wreck that even non-divers can enjoy, consider the two-masted schooner Portland. This ship ran aground in 1877 and has since been torn apart by waves, currents, and ice flow.
You can access the wreck from a beautiful beach, and an abandoned town survives in the woods nearby. The bilge and starboard side now rest in six feet of water, easily accessible to both snorkelers and kayakers.