You couldn’t see your hand in front of your face, let alone another freighter hovering dangerously nearby—in the thick, soupy fog that enveloped the Mackinac Bridge on May 7, 1965. Onboard the Cedarville was a crew of 35 and the 14,000-plus tons of limestone en route to Gary, Indiana. Somewhere in the same waters was the Norwegian freighter, Topdalsfjord and its cargo load of corn. The problem was: it was impossible to tell where.
A captain’s plan to pass the Norwegian ship portside went awry when the message of the plan never reached the other ship. The collision that resulted cost the lives of 10 Cedarville crew members, the captain would be charged with faulty seamanship, and the Cedarville would claim the dubious honor of being the third largest ship lost on the Great Lakes—right behind the Edmund Fitzgerald and the Fitzgerald’s sister ship Carl Bradley.
The story of this and other ships like the package freighter Eber Ward, sunk due to ice on April 20, 1909, are told in a Mackinaw City exhibit that discusses the many hazards of navigating amid the shoals, unpredictable current and often hazardous weather conditions in the Straits of Mackinac.
Stories of Shipwrecks on the Great Lakes
Here lie 14 known shipwrecks that claimed a total of 50 lives. The Mackinac State Historic Parks runs the small but well designed exhibit in an authentically reconstructed warehouse at Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse, taking a somewhat different approach from some similar museums. While telling the story behind the wrecks and bringing them to life through artifacts like a tea strainer, a Tom and Jerry mug or a pocket watch, the exhibits also cover the way human errors and technological changes contributed to the tragedies.
One popular feature lets visitors listen and watch as a diver submerges in the Straits and explores a wreck, narrating the quest along the way. The podcast-style delivery talks of both the zen and time-warp feel of a silent dive into the past. Also popular is the view of the Mackinac Bridge from the top of the lighthouse, which you can tour behind a guide in an original keeper’s uniform. On that tour, you learn how the bridge itself was designed as a navigational aide, complete with warning lights and foghorn. www.mackinacparks.com
Other Ways to Explore the Depths
Lighthouse Cruises of the Straits
Mackinaw City Two separate three-hour cruises, one to the bridge’s east, the other to the west, take in the 14 lighthouses within easy cruising distance of the Mackinac Bridge. Narration covers the way the lighthouses protected mariners but also the stories of those the lights couldn’t protect. www.sheplersferry.com
Glass-Bottom Shipwreck Cruises
Tours take in three Lake Superior shipwrecks including the Bermuda and Herman Hettler as well as the beauty of Grand Island and Munising Bay; the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, which runs an impressive shipwreck museum, offers tours of Lake Huron wrecks like the Monohansett, which sank in a storm and fire in 1907—one of 100 wrecks discovered to date within the massive 4,300 square mile preserve. www.alpenashipwrecktours.com
Diving is the best way to see the 200 known wrecks along the 80-mile stretch of Lake Superior known as the “Shipwreck Coast.” But the compound of historic maritime buildings movingly displays artifacts like the bell from the Edmund Fitzgerald, located 15 miles offshore. www.shipwreckmuseum.com
If you’d like more information on how you can join one of these amazing experiences on the Great Lakes, please visit www.shipwrecktours.com