They don’t call it Lake Superior for nothing. Not only is it the largest freshwater lake in the world, it’s one of the most powerful.
When the lake is stirred up, it has the power to shape the land, create sandstone cliffs, and move sand dunes.
Lake Superior also has the power to destroy. Strong northwest winds, seas up to 40 feet, hidden rock reefs, and low visibility all have created conditions that send ships to a watery graveyard.
According to a recent article in the New York Times, 550 shipwrecks have been located in Lake Superior with another 40 vessels still missing. At least 200 of those wrecks lie along an 80-mile stretch of coastline from Munising to Whitefish Point known as the Shipwreck Coast.
Probably the most famous ship to sink was the Edmund Fitzgerald, which went down on November 10, 1975, 17 miles from Whitefish Point after battling near hurricane force winds and waves up to 35 feet. All 29 crew members aboard perished.
But one community along the Shipwreck Coast has worked to create a haven for ships in distress. Michigan’s Grand Marais, which is where I’m currently staying on vacation, gets its name from the French for Big Marsh, some say.
Others argue that since swamp wasn’t a prominent feature of the area, early voyageurs in their variety of languages probably translated “marais” to mean cove or harbor of refuge. And that translation truly fits what Grand Marais is…the only Harbor of Refuge between between Munising and Whitefish Point where vessels can safely shelter from heavy seas.
The harbor, however, had dangers of its own as Lake Superior’s constant wave action continually dumped sand into the harbor, threatening to fill it in. In the late 1890’s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built two parallel jetties out into Lake Superior. They also created a timber pile breakwater from the east jetty, both of which closed the harbor and prevented the sand from shoaling in.
You can see what it all looks like from this Google Earth screenshot. Unfortunately, during WW2 the Corps stopped maintaining the timber breakwater and Lake Superior waves destroyed it, allowing sand to quickly pile up again. Grand Marais Bay’s original depth was 55 feet; today it is only 25 feet deep.
The Lighthouse Board also erected two, white steel lighthouses to aid in navigation. The Inner Light is located on the West Pier and stands 55 feet tall.
The Outer Light stands 34 feet tall and is also on the West Pier, but at the entrance to the Grand Marais Harbor of Refuge.
The breakwater was eventually replaced with rocks, but still needs more work. In 2010, the Corps developed a plan to build a new structure to keep the sand from filling the important harbor. However, the plan was never implemented because the government ran out of funding. Meanwhile, the locals struggle to find a way to keep the harbor open and operating as a Harbor of Refuge.
New York Times article by Christine Hauser published March 11, 2022.
Shipwreck Coast Map by Scott Schiller of Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Photograph of the Edmund Fitzgerald from Wikipedia.
Seeing the Light by Terry Pepper http://www.terrypepper.com/lights/superior/gdmarais-mi/gdmarais.htm
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers map of Grand Marais Harbor of Refuge
Screen Shot of Grand Marais Harbor of Refuge from Google Earth