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Ghost Ships Of The Great Lakes – Part 1


ghost ships

Acclaimed underwater photographer and videographer Becky Kagan Schott explains how she came to fall in love with the shipwrecks of the Great Lakes, and showcases the sunken remains in her own inimitable style

Photographs by Becky Kagan Schott

I started scuba diving at a young age and was immediately enamoured with every type of underwater environment. Before I saw a shipwreck underwater, my young mind pictured it as a perfectly preserved ship sitting on the bottom like something you’d see in a Disney movie.

When I started diving recreational wrecks in Florida, however, I found it difficult to make out parts of the more-dilapidated wrecks.

The intact or artificial sites, stripped of doorways and machinery, looked far barer than what I had in mind. Fast forward to 13 years ago when I began diving the Great Lakes, and my childlike visions of shipwrecks appeared for real. I immediately fell deeper in love with shipwreck diving.

The wrecks in the Great Lakes range from 1800s wooden schooners to modern steel freighters. Steamers, wooden freighters, sidewheel ferries and more are preserved in the cold, fresh water. Most of them are picture-perfect shipwrecks, and each has a story to tell.

Some are stories of tragedy, some are stories of mystery and survival, but each of them makes wreck diving in this area special. I’ve dived recreational and technical wrecks in all five Great Lakes, and each area has something different to offer.

The visibility can range from ten to over 40 metres depending on which lake we are diving. Water temperatures range from 2-4 degrees C on the bottom and typically warmer thermoclines as summer progresses.

About 25 years ago, invasive mussels were introduced to the lakes and quickly spread. They are currently in four out of five of the lakes and they cover the shipwrecks.

Seeing the mussels cover details on the wrecks is disappointing and sometimes divers are able to clean off a nameboard so you can still read the name, but the upside to the mussels is that they filter the water and the lakes now have incredible visibility.

The engine room of the SS Norman is fully intact
The engine room of the SS Norman is fully intact

Lake Superior is the only lake with no mussels, which means it’s darker and spookier, but all of the details on the shipwrecks are visible, making this lake very special.

There are thousands of ships to explore and each year, I return to wrecks I’ve been to in the past, and visit new locations. One of my favourite lakes is Huron due to the variety of shipwrecks, from wooden schooners to steel freighters.

The bow of the SS Norman is an impressive insight
The bow of the SS Norman is an impressive insight

A personal favourite is the sidewheel steamer Detroit, which was a paddle wheeler built in 1846 and sunk in a collision in 1854. It is a very intact wreck sitting upright in 64m of water with both of its paddlewheels intact, walking beam engine and beautiful wood-stock anchors on the bow.

I managed to do a photogrammetry model of it in 2022, which took three dives at 35 minutes each bottom time and 70 minutes of decompression to capture over 5,000 high-resolution stills to make the 3D model.

So many ships foundered in collisions, or succumbed to fire, ice, or sank in storms. I cannot help but feel a human connection when I hear the powerful tales of tragedy, mystery and survival. When I see artefacts left behind, especially personal items such as a men’s hat from 1895 sitting inside the SS Norman, or shoes on the Typo, it reminds me that people once walked these very decks.

When I see a ship’s name clearly on the stern of the Judge Hart, or cargo holds containing cargo over a century old still in wooden crates inside a hold, to rail road irons that would have been used to help build the first railroads into this area.

The Daniel J Morrell was one of many tragic losses and a more-recent freighter that sank in November 1966, when it was caught in a violent gale that produced waves over seven metres. The sharp waves eventually snapped the 55-metrelong freighter in half.

The bow section sank quickly with only four men able to make it to a raft, while the stern section that was still under power rammed into the bow as it was sinking, before finally motoring away another five miles before it also sank.

Dennis Hale was a young wheelsman who made it onto the life raft. One by one, each of his shipmates died and succumbed to exposure in the cold November weather and icy cold waves. Dennis was the only survivor out of the crew of 29 men.

He endured 37 hours on the raft and was barely alive when he was found. Hearing his haunting story then diving down to the wreck of the Morrell is very eerie.

The illuminated stern of the judge Harris
The illuminated stern of the judge Harris

The bow sits upright in 60m of water and looks as if it were sailing on the lake bottom. Some glass still reflects from the wheelhouse.

nside a sign reads ‘Laundry’ and there is a washing machine and dryer inside. As you swim down the wreck towards the stern, after seven massive cargo holds the ship just ends. It’s spooky to see the steel twisted and the rest of the freighter missing.

Five miles away in just slightly deeper water, the stern section of the Daniel J Morrell sits upright with the smokestack still standing and whistle on the smokestack. There are two steel lifeboats sitting off to either side of the stern – an ominous sight knowing no one from the stern survived. It’s a mystery still as to why they didn’t launch the lifeboats.

t’s possible the crew was trying to steer the ship towards shore while it was still afloat. It is five miles closer than the bow section, but no evidence can be found to validate this. The crew cabins with bunk beds can be seen and the galley still has dishes stacked in racks on the walls. Signs by the sink are still visible that read ‘Unfit to drink’ and ‘Drinking Water’.

Diver exploring the engine room of the Morrell
Diver exploring the engine room of the Morrell

Dropping down inside the engine room is special. It’s one of the most-incredible engine rooms I’ve seen. I can’t help but think this is where someone may have spent their last moments.

Tools still in place by a workbench, and nuts and bolts in little jars above it remind me of my father’s toolbench when I was a kid. There are all kinds of gauges, and a Chadburn telegraph.

I’m attracted to the wooden schooners that have masts standing 27 metres tall with rigging still attached. They almost appear as if they are still sailing on the lakebed. Sometimes I have to lower my camera and look up at the shipwreck with my own eyes because it’s hard to believe it’s real.

The Cornelia B Windiate is a stunning schooner that has three masts and an intact stern cabin, wheel, wood stock anchors and its lifeboat sitting next to the wreck. It disappeared in November 1875 and became a ‘ghost ship’ because its final resting place couldn’t be placed on a map or chart.

Over a century passed before it was discovered in Lake Huron. It was thought to have sank in a storm in upper Lake Michigan, so a long-time mystery was solved. It is still a mystery as to what happened to her crew of nine.

It’s a theory that the ship was encased in ice, which is why it’s so intact. It’s likely it sank very slowly to the bottom. The crew may have tried to walk to shore, but didn’t make it.

The award-winning wreck photography maestro

Becky Kagan Schott is a five-time Emmy Award-winning underwater cameraman and photographer whose work appears on major networks, including National Geographic, Discovery Channel and Red Bull. She is co-owner of Liquid Productions Inc, and specializes in capturing images in extreme underwater environments, including caves, under ice and deep shipwrecks.

A life boat located at the stern of Morrell
A life boat located at the stern of Morrell

Her projects have taken her all over the world, from the Arctic to the Antarctic, and many exciting locations in between. Recently Becky organized and led a successful expedition to be one of only a handful of people to ever dive inside a glacier.

She’s filmed new wrecks, cave exploration and even diving cage-less with great white sharks. Her experience working in remote locations around the world and artistically capturing extreme environments has earned her a reputation of being able to produce quality work in tough situations.

Her biggest passion is shooting haunting images of deep shipwrecks in the Great Lakes. She combines her artistic style with powerful stories of tragedy, mystery and survival to ignite the viewers’ imagination.

She’s constantly pushing the limits of technology and trying new creative techniques to capture the beauty of the underwater world. In the past few years, she’s also been working on producing high-quality 3D photogrammetry models in the Great Lakes, which showcases shipwrecks in a new way for divers and nondivers to explore.

Becky has been actively diving for 29 years and technical diving for 24 of them. She has been an instructor for two decades and is currently an active TDI Mixed Gas Rebreather Instructor.

In her spare time, she’s participated in dozens of exploration projects around the world, which earned her a place as a Fellow in the Explorers Club, and in 2013 she was inducted into the Women Divers Hall of Fame.

You can visit: Liquid Productions

The stern of the Kyle Spangler
The stern of the Kyle Spangler

Close to the Windiate is the shipwreck Kyle Spangler. The Spangler sank in a collision in 1860. It also has an intact stern cabin, wheel and both its masts still standing with crow’s nests. It’s a small schooner, but very impressive to see in person. On the right day, you can see the entire 39-metre-long ship. Lake Michigan also has some interesting shipwrecks, including train car ferries, freighters, steamships, scow schooners, planes and there is a sub, but its location is still unknown.

The wreck of the Vernon sank in 1887 near Two Rivers Wisconsin in a gale that swamped the ship, taking the lives of almost 50 people, with only a single survivor. It was a narrow vessel built in 1886, only a year before its sinking, to carry passengers and freight. It could travel up to 15mph, which was fast for its time, but being so narrow and having a deep draft caused it to become unstable when carrying a full cargo at that speed.

Diver exploring the Vernon wreck
Diver exploring the Vernon wreck

Diving the Vernon is like visiting an underwater museum. As we descended on it almost the entire wreck came into view in 64m of water. Inside the ship there is still large amounts of mixed cargo, including 400 boxes of fish, 90 tons of pig iron and barrels of what used to be apples and potatoes, along with wooden bowls, jugs, potato mashers, funnels and more. Inside we saw bunks along with the engine towards the stern. There are two anchors on the bow and beautiful scroll work carved into the wood, which I thought was special to see since so much of the wreck is covered in invasive quagga mussels.

At the stern Jitka illuminated the massive rudder and prop, which is impressive after 135 years underwater. We enjoyed the dive so much we did close to 40 minutes on the wreck because there is so much to see.

This article was originally published in Scuba Diver UK #78

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