There’s a saying up here in the dune country. The sand gives, and the sand takes away.
Over the years, the golden sands along the towering Sleeping Bear Dunes have buried farms, forests and settlements. Just as unpredictably, though, they can retreat and bring to light what they have buried – as happened, for instance, in the case of the Three Brothers.
A 160-foot wooden steamer, the Brothers ran aground in 1911 on a sandbar off the coast of South Manitou Island and vanished without a trace. For nearly a century, boaters and beachcombers fished and swam right over the wreck without knowing it was there, until the current shifted the sand away in 1996 and uncovered the vessel – completely intact – in a mere 12 feet of water. Since then it’s become a magnet for scuba divers and snorkelers from all around the country.
Although the waters around Traverse City lack the coral reefs and technicolor fish of the tropics, they’re a popular diving destination because they’re so rich in shipwrecks. Most date back to the middle of the 19th century when the region teemed with schooners, tugs, fishing smacks and steamships of all shapes and sizes, but some are as recent as the 1990s. Thanks to Lake Michigan’s cold, fresh water, these wrecks are underwater “time capsules” – so well-preserved that even small items like cutlery, machinery, ornaments, and porcelain cups remain unharmed and in their original locations.
This spring, the U.S. Coast Guard Air Station in Traverse City created an Internet sensation when it released a series of aerial photographs taken along the Sleeping Bear shore; after the spring thaw, the water was so clear that many new wrecks were spotted. The best shipwreck-hunting grounds in the region are in the 282-square-mile Manitou Passage Underwater Preserve just off the Sleeping Bear Dunes, between the Manitou Islands and the Leelanau Peninsula. A protected “short cut” for shipping since colonial times, the Passage contains the wrecks of over 130 ships – only a few of which have been found so far.
One of the easiest to spot is the Francisco Morazan, a steel-hulled freighter that ran aground on South Manitou Island in a 1960 blizzard and can now be seen half-submerged just a few hundred yards offshore in only 15 feet of water. The 246- foot ship can be easily explored with fins, mask and snorkel. Just a few hundred yards away is the Walter L. Frost, a wooden steamer that ran aground in 1905. Though it was somewhat damaged when the Morazan sank on top of it, the Frost is a favorite with divers because large sections of the hull with machinery, boilers and related artifacts are open to divers of all skill levels.
Another popular wreck lies at the opposite end of the island; it’s the Alva Bradley, a three-masted schooner that sank in shallow water between North and South Manitou in 1894. The 194-foot wreck is still largely intact along with her cargo of steel billets and many other artifacts, although the remains of the ship’s rigging lie about 200 yards away.
Not all Sleeping Bear wrecks require a diver’s or even a snorkeler's skills. Many come to light along the shore – sometimes only for a brief time – and can be explored by the casual beachcomber. The most recent of these, a massive fragment 43 feet long and 14 feet wide (the largest shipwreck fragment to wash ashore at the park) is believed to be part of the James McBride, which went down in 1857. It can be reached by hiking southward from Sleeping Bear Point, where fragments of other vessels can also be found in the water.
Another shallow-shore wreck is the Rising Sun, a 13- foot wooden steamer that went aground north of Pyramid Point in 1917. Although she was pounded to pieces by the violent surf, her wreckage now rests in 6 to 12 feet of water and includes a massive steam engine assembly that kids love to climb on.
In spite of the dangers, most of the crew and passengers from these unlucky vessels were able to reach shore alive. That’s largely because of the efforts of the valiant men of the U.S. Life-Saving Service – a predecessor of the Coast Guard – which built stations on both Manitou Islands and at Sleeping Bear Point.
The island facilities are now used as ranger stations during the summer months, and the former station on the mainland is a maritime museum where visitors can see how the Lifesaving Service did its job. You can tour the boathouse to see the massive surfboats that were launched into the waves during rescues as well as the Lyle Gun, a small cannon that was used to fire rescue lines to a struggling ship. (In summer, rangers will enact mock “shipwreck drills” to show children how it was all done.)
More wrecks can be found even closer to Traverse City itself, in the sheltered waters of the Grand Traverse Bay Underwater Preserve. The A. J. Rogers, a 138-foot wooden schooner that sank in 1989, lies just 4.5 miles off the tip of the Old Mission Peninsula. Just a few miles south of the point, along the East Bay shore is another schooner, the 125-foot Metropolis, whose keelson is in only five feet of water and a popular snorkeling destination. (Much more of the ship lies a few yards to the east, over the edge of a hundred-foot underwater cliff.) The Tramp, a 54-foot tug, lies in 44 feet of water in West Bay, near Power Island.
Underwater tourism is increasingly popular in Traverse City, particularly in late summer when Lake Michigan and Grand Traverse Bay get warm enough for deep exploration. But experienced wreck divers say the best season is autumn – the water’s still warm, but there’s much less recreational boat traffic and the already phenomenal clarity of the water is even better.