Traverse City Record-Eagle

November 10, 2010

Shipwreck washes ashore at dunes


GLEN ARBOR — Beachcombing is one of Sue Frye's hobbies. She and her husband, Jim, often walk a remote stretch of beach near Lake Michigan's Sleeping Bear Point and clear it of debris.

The couple, of Traverse City, decided to hike it on Halloween, after days of high winds snapped trees and cut power to thousands of residents, knowing the gusts likely stirred something loose.

When they reached the spot where the Dune Climb trail meets the water, Frye spotted a large wooden object in the sand. It looked like the hull of a ship, and it hadn't been there before.

"It looked so ancient," said Frye, who captured the image with her cell-phone camera. "Figured it must have been washed up from the deep."

The wreckage is similar to two ships lost in the Manitou Passage about 150 years ago, but local maritime experts said a positive identification might be impossible.

Frye sent her image to Kerry Kelly, chairman of Friends of Sleeping Bear Dunes, who visited the site and contacted Great Lakes historians.

The relic is about 16 feet wide and 40 feet long, Kelly said.

Additional wreckage washed up earlier, about a mile from the Fryes' discovery, but it is unknown whether the two are related. Both pieces can be found by hiking the Dune Climb to where it meets Lake Michigan, or by walking about two and a half miles along the beach from the Maritime Museum in Glen Haven.

"It is huge, and it is heavy, and it is out of the water," Kelly said. "Those winds must have been blowing out there."

The most recent shipwreck appears to be a propeller-driven steamer, not a schooner, said Laura Quackenbush, museum technician with Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

The ship piece offers evidence it was constructed to accommodate the weight of a boiler and steam system, Quackenbush said.

She contacted Steve Harold, director of the Manistee County Historical Museum, who said the shipwreck could be that of the St. Nicholas or the General Taylor — both lost during fall months in the mid-19th century.

The St. Nicholas carried wheat when it started to leak and became stranded in Sleeping Bear Bay in November 1857. The General Taylor was stranded in October 1862 near Sleeping Bear Point.

Both ships were wrecked near where the wooden hull washed ashore, said Harold, author of "Shipwrecks of the Sleeping Bear." Determining its identity will be harder, since wood can float for miles and no name or serial numbers were recovered.

"The chances are better than 50-50 that this is an early propeller vessel," he said. "Those are the most logical choices, but there's no proof."

High winds and waves can disturb objects resting on the lake floor, Harold said. Because of ships' size, it is hard to stop them once they're in motion.

Frye knows the Great Lakes are powerful, but she still is awed that the piece washed ashore.

"You can't even imagine what it took to push that up there," she said. "It's incredible what that lake can do."