The Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary in Lake Huron, Michigan provides us with a look into the past at one of the most traveled regions of the Great Lakes over the last few centuries. In the 1800s, the area was filled with boats of all kinds – from Native American canoes to huge, iron-wrought barges. In fact, before the wide use of roads and horses the Lakes provided the only modern form of transport, evidence of just how important the Great Lakes were in the making of America. Nowadays, the area is more colloquially known as Shipwreck Alley, as the sanctuary houses one of America’s best-preserved and nationally-significant collections of sunken ships, sprawling across 4300 square miles and adding up to over 200 vessels!
Prior to the sanctuary’s inception, Thunder Bay was renowned for its tumultuous weather with murky fog, sudden gales and deadly winter storms terrorising the region. The weather, alongside the extremely high waves and rocky shoals, resulted in over 200 vessels in and around Thunder Bay being claimed by fire, ice, collisions and storms. This vast collection of shipwrecks has sparked interest among both academics and tourists alike, not only due to its sheer size, but also due to the huge range of boat types, from German cargo freighter Nordmeer wrecked in 1966, to the Gilchrest Fleet of 3 barges carrying lumber abandoned at the beginning of the 20th century.
The cold freshwater has allowed for almost immaculate preservation of all these shipwrecks, acting as a time capsule and enabling a chance to observe the graveyard of centuries of transportation and trade in the Great Lakes. The preservation of the sanctuary is a concern for both national policymakers and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), who are conducting research as we speak using sonar imaging to investigate the identified wrecks. A mooring buoy program, research, education, resource protection and state laws mean that we can preserve Thunder Bay for future generations to enjoy just as much as we can!
There’s even a museum in the nearby city of Alpena – the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Centre – exhibiting local shipwrecks and providing a hub for education and tourism on this fascinating cultural landscape. To date, only 93 shipwrecks have been found, but research indicates a further 100 or more are yet to be discovered – it truly is sobering to think about the many lives lost traversing the Lakes…
Article by Hannah Buchanan
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