Crashing waves and erosion persistent enough to wear down cement tubes have been chipping away at Michigan’s western shores throughout the year, but rough surf and storm surge from the Thanksgiving storm churned up more than just sand.
Resting near the shore, a sunken ship lies belly-up and battered. The keel just scrapes above the surface, the end of the keel bending upward and out of the lapping waves.
President of the West Michigan Underwater Preserve John Hanson had gone to investigate the wreckage, trying to piece together the purpose and story behind the vessel.
“The whole keel length is only 12 inches wide and each of the ribs are only 5.5 inches square. And for a ship… a vessel this size to only have that small of ribs and that small of a keel, it was built rather light and for light duty, but not really a sailing ship,” Hanson told AccuWeather. “We realized it was more of a barge or a scow type construction, not a regular sailing schooner.”
By the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, the wind and rain of the storm had arrived in Muskegon.
“It was windy, rainy and mild that Wednesday in Muskegon,” AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Dan Pydynowski said. “Sustained winds were 20-25 mph much of the day from the west and southwest with gusts in the 40s.”
At the Muskegon County Airport 3 miles inland, a gust as high as 51 mph had been recorded.
“The combination of those westerly winds and wave action from the storm likely churned the ship up to the surface and then pushed it to the shore,” Pydynowski said.
Shipwrecks in the Great Lakes are not uncommon, and NOAA even has a database of discovered shipwrecks in U.S. waters. Lake Michigan alone serves as the resting place to around 1,500 discovered shipwrecks.
Included in that count are vessels such as The Lady Elgin, the SS Carl D. Bradley and supposedly the famous Le Griffon.
The Lady Elgin, a sidewheel steamboat, set out from Chicago for Milwaukee just before midnight on Sept. 7, 1860, according to the Winnetka Historical Society.
But visibility was greatly reduced as a storm rolled in, and the schooner Augusta crashed into the side of the larger ship during the early hours of Sept. 8. The Augusta limped away, but made it to its destination of Chicago. The Lady Elgin, however, sank within half an hour, the small ship having opened a large hole in the steamboat’s side.
Over 300 of the nearly 400 lives on board were lost.
“Any storm like [the Thanksgiving storm] producing 50-mph wind gusts, heavy rain and high waves would be dangerous for any ships out on the lake, especially smaller ones,” Pydynowski said. “Not only are the winds and waves dangerous themselves, the rain and spray from the waves can greatly reduce visibility, which obviously is also hazardous to anyone captaining a ship.”
After jumping from guesses and theories on the origin of the boat, Hanson landed on a possible explanation.
“We found a newspaper article saying that in 1936 a barge fell apart on the way being towed to Musegon,” Hanson said.
“It was hauling a 1915 Bucyrus Erie Steam Crane. The barge started taking on water and the Coast Guard was called,” Hanson told Fox News through an email. “In an effort to pull the barge faster to safety, the bow separated from the barge and the Steam Crane went into Lake Michigan, still Hot, to which it exploded.”
The crane from this incident had been discovered eight years prior and sits a quarter mile from the newly discovered barge.
But even this theorized connection sits in rough waters.
“Nothing’s absolute,” Hanson said.
Additional reporting by Blake Naftel.