[NPS Arrowhead]
U.S. Dept. of Interior National Park Service Archeology Program Quick Menu Features * Sitemap * Home

State Submerged Resources > Michigan


Michigan’s two peninsulas touch four of the five Great Lakes and Lake St. Clair so it is no wonder that it is known as the Great Lakes State. Michigan has 3,288 miles of Great Lakes shoreline and more than 11,000 inland lakes and 300 named rivers, giving it the longest freshwater shoreline in the world. With 38,575 square miles of Great Lakes water and 1,305 square miles of inland water, almost 41% of the state is covered by water.

What is Michigan’s maritime heritage?

The Great Lakes have functioned as transportation highways for hundreds if not thousands of years. The earliest known people to have lived in Michigan were Paleo-Indians between 2,000 and 9,000 years ago. When French explorers and settlers arrived in the 17th century, they found Algonquian tribes living in the area. The French built forts in strategic locations around the Great Lakes, as did the British and, later, the Americans, and a number of naval battles were waged on the Great Lakes. The tonnage of Great Lakes shipping increased dramatically when the Erie Canal was finished in 1825, connecting the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean. Michigan has about 150 lighthouses, more than any other state, along its shores and islands of the Great Lakes.

What sites are underwater?

The waters of the Great Lakes can be treacherous for ships that get caught in unexpected storms, crushed by ice, and run aground or collide with other vessels in foggy conditions. An estimated 6,000 ships have been lost on the Great Lakes with about one-third of them in the waters of Michigan. There are more than 1,400 known shipwrecks recorded in Michigan’s waters. The cold temperatures and freshwater of the lakes keeps these wrecks and their contents well preserved as if they sank yesterday.

More than 200 shipwrecks are located in the state’s network of underwater preserves. They include wooden schooners, side-wheel steamers, steel bulk freighters, tugboats, and commercial fishing vessels. There is at least one yacht, a fighter jet, a U.S. Coast Guard cutter, and submerged piers. Some of the wrecks are intact and sitting upright while others are broken up with pieces scattered on the lake bottom. Many of the sites are in shallow water and some are marked with interpretive signs.

Who takes care of Michigan's underwater archeological sites?

Three government agencies in Michigan share responsibility for taking care of the state’s underwater archeological sites. These agencies work closely with volunteer groups and businesses, especially scuba divers, charter boat operators, and tourism destinations, to accomplish their mission.

The Department of History, Arts and Libraries records, investigates, evaluates, interprets, and protects the state’s archeological heritage. It accomplishes this through the Office of the State Archaeologist in the Michigan Historical Center. The Department of Environmental Quality administers the underwater preserves program and regulates the recovery and use of submerged cultural resources. The Department of Natural Resources enforces safe-boating and anti-theft laws.

What permits do I need to study shipwrecks?

You do not need a permit to search for, dive on, explore, or photograph a shipwreck site as long as no artifacts are disturbed and nothing is recovered. You do need a permit for activities that involve moving artifacts, recovering objects, or placing anything on the site. Permits are issued jointly by the Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of History, Arts and Libraries following public notice and comment by the Underwater Salvage and Preserve Committee. Artifacts of historical value recovered under a permit must be available for viewing or study in a public setting like a museum. Anyone who finds a shipwreck is asked to report it to the Office of the State Archaeologist.

Are there any underwater parks in Michigan?

Michigan has a network of underwater preserves that include about 2,700 square miles of Great Lakes bottomlands. Most preserves have dive charter services and many are accessible from shore. While the main attractions in the preserves are wrecks of ships of the 1800s and 1900s, some interesting underwater geologic formations and historic dock ruins are also popular dive sites. The preserve at Thunder Bay is jointly managed by the state and the federal government as the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary and Underwater Preserve.

What laws concern underwater archeology in Michigan?

Michigan’s laws about archeology and abandoned property, including underwater sites and underwater preserves, are contained in Part 761 Aboriginal Records and Antiquities, §324.76101, et seq., of Public Act 451 of 1994, as amended, in the Michigan Compiled Laws. This law directs the state to manage shipwrecks and other submerged cultural resources on the bottomlands of the Great Lakes for the benefit of its citizens. The state protects these publicly owned resources as elements of Michigan’s and the nation’s history and for the enjoyment of future generations.

Related Websites: