The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum is ‘On The Map


DSCN1507There are more than 6,000 shipwrecks littering the bottom of the Great Lakes. Remnants of shipping and boating industries on the lakes.

One of the key places for shipwreck and maritime history is Whitefish Point.

The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum sits at the end of Whitefish Point road, if you go any further, you’re going to end up in Lake Superior.

It’s a cluster of buildings, all painted white, surrounding a lighthouse tower that is more than 150 years old.

The tower itself has an interesting story, one journalism can be proud of:
“In 1846 Horace Greeley, who was publisher of I think the New York World, took a boat ride on Lake Superior, printed in his paper, I’ve been there, I’ve seen, you know, where the winds from the northwest just blow in, ships get wrecked on the beach,” said Sean Ley, the museum’s development officer, “and sure enough he actually embarrassed the Congress into doing something about it.”

Sean Ley

Sean Ley

The first lighthouse was poorly made and had to be replaced with the existing tower in 1861.

“You see when the building was built it was built in 1861, along with the iron tower,” said Bev Purcell, one of the founding members of the Shipwreck society that runs the museum. “Just think, President Lincoln had just taken office, kinda puts it in perspective.”

Purcell spends a lot of her says in the lighthouse keepers quarters, telling visitors all about the beautifully restored building and the families that once lived there.

Bev Purcell

Bev Purcell

She said the museum is a destination for many visitors. “This is a little isolated. You come up that eleven miles then the road ends here, you can’t go any further. So you have to want to come here, you don’t just go by and stop and see it. So point of destination.”

And for a number of people the Shipwreck Museum is a destination because of one shipwreck. Everyone at the museum can talk about it, and the ship’s bell is displayed prominently:the Edmund Fitzgerald.

The ship sank on November 10, 1975, claiming the lives of all 29 crew members on board.

“So I think the Fitzgerald will always be discussed,” Bev Purcell said. “Because no one can prove exactly what sunk the ship, the Fitzgerald, everyone has their theories.”

Those theories include rogue waves, faulty hatches and hidden shoals.

The restored bell from the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

The restored bell from the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

What is known is that the ship was off course and had lost its radar, the power was out in the lighthouse and a fierce November gale was blowing on Lake Superior.

Thanks to a famous song, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” by Gordon Lightfoot that came out the year following the wreck, a lot of people know about the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

Teresa Biehl works the front desk at the museum. “A couple came through from Germany and one of the co-workers asked them how they knew about this place and they said it was the Edmund Fitzgerald Song, that how they heard about it. The song had made it famous for sure.”

Teresa Beihl.

Teresa Beihl.

But whether you come up to the museum to learn more about the Edmund Fitzgerald or just because the pull of Lake Superior brings you up north, the museum is a fascinating example of living history.

Richard Jarnagin has worked at the museum for 6 years.“The cool thing is it all happened right here. I’m not in Detroit talking about something that happened on Lake Superior, it all happened right here. Which is kind of the neat thing because then you kind of have the gasp or a feeling that it actually happened here.”

Richard Jarnigan explains historic lifesaving techniques.

Richard Jarnigan explains historic lifesaving techniques.

Eleven miles from Paradise, on the edge of Lake Superior, the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum is putting Whitefish Point on the Map.