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Contested Waters
Fall/Winter 1996, vol. 1(3/4)

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*  Shipwreck Preservation in Michigan: Two Decades On

(photo) Salvors search a ship in 1909.

"To make a discovery is the dream of most [sports divers]. A virgin wreck is a high-class trophy. It is also the first and last chance to record the scene in a pristine state."

John R. Halsey

by John Halsey

The depths of the Great Lakes hold an unparalleled record of the development of maritime transportation in the midcontinent. From the LaSalles's Griffin to Edmund Fitzgerald to unheralded yachts and other recreational vessels, the lakes continue to claim victims, unlucky, unwise, or unprepared.

The cold, freshwater depths preserve, very nearly intact, the structures of the ships, their cargoes, possessions of crews and passengers and sometimes their bodies. Although many vessels were salvaged after they sank, these waters hold examples of every major variety of ship to sail the lakes—schooners, steam barges, whalebacks, bulk freighters, side-wheel palace steamers. Many are unique, epitomized perhaps by a captured Word War I German submarine. Often the wrecks represent the only real documentation of the ship as it once was, with blueprints and plans, if they ever existed, lost.

Certainly the remains of these vessels are invaluable. Yet most states in the region rank their preservation very low on the priority list. For the foreseeable future, shipwreck managers have had to face the fact that these vessels will continue to be valued primarily as recreational spots for sport divers. This, combined with the ongoing battles over who owns the wrecks, makes their preservation a formidable challenge. Given these facts, I hope to explain how Michigan, whose borders enclose nearly 40 percent of the lakes, has attempted the daunting task of managing this remarkable resource.

Two Steps Forward . . .

Passage of the Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1987 and Michigan's Public Act 452 of 1988 (a revision of Public Act 154 of 1980) did much to lessen, but not end, the seemingly eternal controversy over who owns the vessels and their contents. The federal law vested ownership of wrecks with the various states in whose waters they lay. The Michigan act, which has become the model for similar legislation in Ohio, further confirmed state ownership, clarified administrative and enforcement ambiguities from earlier legislation, and set aside bottomland for underwater preserves.

The preservation activism embodied in these acts, and in the federal guidelines, focused attention on long-deferred problems of shipwreck management, site protection, and sport-diver education. The downside is that the state has had its responsibilities greatly expanded with no increase in resources. Neither law included funding for research, evaluation, law enforcement, or education, even as the preserves have spurred sport diving as a recreational industry along the lakes.

The principal problem that is facing state shipwreck managers is that they generally have little control over the sites, often not knowing exactly where they are. The creation of accurate shipwreck site files was a relatively late addition to most state historic preservation offices. There are so many potentially important bits of information about a ship and so many places where it can be hidden. The average dirt archeologist-turned-shipwreck manager, faced with a bewildering variety of unfamiliar, fragmentary, and often inaccessible sources, is often the last to hear about a wreck.

Sport divers—who are the underwater archeologist's main source for information and field crews—are also those chiefly responsible for disturbing these vessels. To make a discovery is the dream of most; a virgin wreck is considered a high-class trophy. It is also the first and last opportunity to record the scene in a pristine state. Divers may take copious photographs and videos, and even make some drawings, but do little in the way of plotting individual remains. Once the wreck is opened, artifacts, if they do not disappear, are quickly displaced from where they were when the vessel came to rest. Research is focused on the wreck incident, seldom on the role of the vessel or the site in its archeological or historical context. I am unaware of any private individual undertaking the research needed to complete a National Register nomination.

Divers dismiss as unnecessary or impossible the suggestion that they do this kind of documentation (buddies will dive to be in on the thrill of discovery, but the hard grind of recording draws few volunteers). It is even more distressing when this suggestion is distorted to imply that THE STATE is trying to stop people from finding new wrecks. Yet personal responsibility for what happens to the wreck-that-didn't-need-to-be-found is quickly shed as the seeker moves on to the next quarry.

Some Great Lakes divers vigorously and vocally support what they consider the "diver's right of access," vehemently opposing any real or perceived regulations to limit their diving on any wreck, any time. This is true even when the regulations are intended to help preserve artifacts in place, the avowed goal of most dive organizations. Any hint of additional regulation is anathema and galvanizes the dive community like nothing else. Divers' concerns usually have an origin with an incident such as early NOAA attempts to prohibit diving on the Monitor. This has led to the demonization of shipwreck managers as—in the words of one flyer aimed at divers—"bureaucratic vampires who should be buried so deep that he/she burns in h——, forever."

Hi-tech equipment makes it increasingly easy for shipwreck hunters to act on this perceived right. In the Great Lakes, side-scan sonar is the tool of choice. Combined with intensive historic research on the wreck incident, it is an extremely potent finding aid. Many wrecks are so well preserved that a side-scan portrait is sometimes sufficient to identify them without even diving. The cost of side-scan sonar (around $50,000 and dropping) is well within the range of private individuals, who have ready access to the equipment, the boats to carry it, and the eager support of fellow divers to carry out the cold, dark, and highly dangerous work of photographing a wreck at depths of more than 200 feet. Shipwreck hunters tend to be extremely secretive and the location of a new wreck is closely held until the discoverer decides to "give out the numbers," the Loran-C coordinates revealing the exact location. There is then a rush to dive the newest wreck.

Loran-C navigation aids and side-scan sonar have made finding and—just as important—relocating shipwrecks an activity well within the range of many private citizens. In the past, wreck sites were found, but then lost again due to inadequate recording techniques or navigational skills. Today, a wreck once found stays found.

The use of remotely operated vehicles in the Great Lakes is still a novelty. The equipment's great expense, combined with the requisite logistical support and operator experience, all militate against this technology's becoming a major factor. The use of ROVs has been limited to photographing extremely deep wrecks such as Hamilton and Scourge in Lake Ontario and Edmund Fitzgerald in Lake Superior. A new technology with great potential for documenting certain kinds of sites is video-mosaic imaging, which involves videotaping along a grid, then manipulating the images with a computer to create a nearly seamless mosaic. Of course, a diver using a hand-held video camera can also record hours of detailed images. Few have used magnetometers in Michigan or elsewhere in the Great Lakes, principally because there is hardly a need for them. When you have 150-year-old wrecks with the masts still standing, there is little call for a machine designed to detect the nails and bolts that held them together.

Tools Without the Means

Given the array of equipment, it may come as a surprise that there has been relatively little archeology done on shipwrecks if by that is meant recovery and conservation of artifacts. However, there is no lack of maritime survey and salvage firms owning a cornucopia of sensitive detection and recording devices who would be glad to rent their services to archeologists. Sadly, the cost of obtaining these services is far beyond the ability of state offices, few of which have the funds for even a day or two. The cost of side-scan sonar, while constantly declining, is beyond dreaming for most. Michigan did have some success using the national Historic Preservation Fund to promote underwater survey and inventory, but there was always a problem coming up with matching monies. Today the flat funding of the state program means that there is no budget for surveys except those mandated for certified local governments.

For the foreseeable future, I believe the recording of shipwreck remains will continue to use the "low-tech" method of establishing a baseline, then using trilateration to produce a scale drawing of the structure. Despite demonstrably high error rates, these techniques require little expensive equipment and are easily learned and applied to many situations.

Dealing with the Dilemmas

In spite of the above factors, we have had some success, largely due to creative partnerships, legislative efforts, and education. By taking the preservation message directly to even our most hostile audiences, we've recruited many allies.

Michigan has always taken a flexible approach to preservation, bringing together various agencies that all have a stake in the resource. In the early 1970s, important individuals in the law enforcement and executive divisions of the Michigan department of natural resources determined that the agency had a legitimate responsibility for shipwrecks. They established a management ethic that continues today (which, unfortunately, is conspicuously absent at other natural resource agencies around the lakes). The department of environmental quality's coastal zone management program has been a consistent source of financial support for a wide range of maritime historical and archeological projects. The office of the attorney general has successfully defended the state's legal claims to shipwrecks using as expert witnesses staff from these departments and the Michigan department of state.

That department, a co-manager of shipwrecks with the other two, has also attempted to address its shipwreck responsibilities since the early '70s. Four staff members at the Michigan Historical Center, an agency of the state department, are now certified open water divers and three have some underwater archeological experience. In 1992, a state historical marker was placed next to the wreck of the tug Sport, the first time an underwater site had been so designated.

Shipwreck managers from the eight Great Lakes states and the Province of Ontario are now on a first-name basis because they share common problems and generally seek common solutions. Knowing that sport diver cooperation is essential, they have formed the Great Lakes Regional Conference on Underwater Cultural Resource Policy to enlist the support of the dive community and to be open about their management goals. The proceedings of their first meeting in 1993, Great Lakes Underwater Cultural Resources: Important Information for Shaping Our Future, was published by Michigan State University with financial support from the Park Service Archeology Program, among others. The Michigan State Police's underwater recovery unit has offered to videotape new discoveries and document artifacts in place.

An Attitudinal Sea Change

Lacking funds, many of us use our personal time to go where divers gather. Although as bureaucrats we are an easy target, we have gradually fostered a general maturation of ethics in the diving community. More divers now understand that if everyone takes a souvenir or engages in unlimited or unregulated salvage, there will soon be no wrecks worth diving on. This attitude allowed for the passage of Public Act 154 and the significantly stronger Public Act 452 of 1988, which governs the recovery of submerged artifacts and increased the allotment for preserves to 10 percent of Michigan's 38,000 square miles of bottomland. It was at sport diver insistence that the 1980 law was toughened. Unfortunately, however much the rate has slowed, artifacts continue to disappear, showing that the preservation ethic has yet to reach everyone.

A few divers have begun to undertake their own recording and documentation projects. Dozens participated in a basic course in underwater recording techniques sponsored by the Straits of Mackinac Underwater Preserve in the late 1980s. Others have been actively involved in the return of artifacts to the wrecks from which they were taken or, in one remarkable case, actually recreating and installing a figurehead on a wreck from which the original had been removed.

There are probably more than 100,000 certified scuba divers in the Great Lakes region; at times it may seem they are the only ones with an interest in what lies on the bottom. This is certainly not the case.

Many organizations, public and private, have been involved in shipwreck management and study. Michigan State University's Michigan Sea Grant College Program has performed landmark studies on the economic significance of sport diving, encouraging positive diver attitudes toward preserves and preparing documents such as the Michigan Bottomland Preserve Inventory. Sea Grant agents have been tireless promoters of bottomland preserves and the shipwreck conservation ethic in coastal communities. The work of Sea Grant has been continued by the Center for Maritime and Underwater Resource Management at Michigan State University through ongoing projects, conferences, and excellent reports such as the award-winning Inventory of Maritime and Recreation Resources of the Manitou Passage Underwater Preserve.

Many discoveries have contributed to our understanding of the maritime past, deepened some of the mysteries surrounding it, and offered opportunities to foster public interest. The discovery of shoreline shipwrecks at Grand Haven, at the mouth of the Upper Peninsula's Millecoquins River, and at South Manitou Island in northern Lake Michigan highlight the ability of deep sandy shorelines to capture and conceal vessels, preserving them virtually intact. The name Three Brothers of Buffalo still adorns the stern of the South Manitou wreck. The Millecoquins wreck still has its paint and caulking although it dates from the 1830s. If the river had not migrated, it is unlikely this particular site would have ever been found.

Museums around the lakes have both temporary and permanent maritime exhibits. In March 1990 the Michigan Historical Museum opened the expansive temporary exhibit "Beneath the Inland Seas: Underwater Archaeology of the Great Lakes," chronicling a range of topics, from where prehistoric sites might be located to the conservation techniques used on the Rockaway's artifacts. Museums with permanent maritime exhibits are found in South Haven, Muskegon, Whitefish Point, Marquette, Copper Harbor, Sault Ste. Marie, Presque Isle Harbor, Port Sanilac, and Detroit.

Exhibits have a limited life span, but publications continue to educate for decades. Over the years, Great Lakes readers have turned to Fred Stonehouse's books to experience the drama of how various ships were lost. Telescope and Inland Seas also provide information. Michigan History Magazine, a popular journal published by the department of state, frequently includes articles on shipwrecks (the entire November/December 1992 issue was devoted to maritime history). Books like Steve Harrington's divers' guides describe Great Lakes shipwrecks, where they are found, what condition they are in, and how to behave when diving on them. Chuck Feltner's Shipwrecks of the Straits of Mackinac presents an immense amount of information while never becoming unnecessarily technical. My own contribution, Beneath the Inland Seas: Michigan's Underwater Archaeological Heritage (produced by Michigan History Magazine), was written for both lay and professional audiences with hopes that how the state viewed its maritime preservation responsibilities would be understood. All these publications can be found in mainstream bookstores, not just dive shops.

A Course for the Future

As Great Lakes maritime archeology continues to grow, it is hampered by a dearth of experienced, professional practitioners and a lack of focused, committed, long-term funding. The proposed creation of a national marine sanctuary in Lake Huron's Thunder Bay could give our maritime resources yet another showcase and some professional on-site managers. Concern for the maritime past respects neither state nor national boundaries; our Canadian colleagues have been especially active in organizing conferences to address issues of concern to all. Much information on Great Lakes history lies in private hands; given the proper circumstances, remarkable results are obtainable. The fact that the Association for Great Lakes Maritime History produced an interim report on the excavation of the Millecoquins shipwreck only four months after the first season of field work is a tribute to all who participated in it.

Maritime archeology excites intense public interest. The media seldom give front-page treatment to finds on land unless skeletons are involved (at least in Michigan!). Yet the discovery of a shipwreck, no matter how mundane its career, is guaranteed a feature. While archeologists may view these vessels as time capsules of culture, and divers see them as recreational venues, the general populace perceives them as exciting stories. Our greatest challenge now is to successfully communicate to the 99 percent of the population that doesn't dive that these are their wrecks too. Until then, managers and archeologists will continue to wage an uneven battle with the trophy wreck finders, wreck rapers, and souvenir hunters.