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A Chance to Unlock Deep Mysteries

Lake Huron's Thunder Bay will soon become the nation's 13th marine sanctuary in an effort to preserve its dense concentration of shipwrecks.


Does anyone know where the love of God goes

When the waves turn the minutes to hours?

--Gordon Lightfoot, "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald"


Every awful thing that could happen to a mariner eventually did.

During the 200-year history of shipping on the Great Lakes, nightmarish gales screeched down from Canada, explosions and fires caught men off guard, collisions shook the air on foggy nights, lost captains groped the coastline only to hear the sickening strike of hull against rock.

Now a portion of this heritage is about to gain national recognition. On Saturday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the state of Michigan are to dedicate the 448-square-mile Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary on northern Lake Huron. A cemetery of maritime calamity, this modest bay holds the wreckage of an astonishing 116 ships, maybe more--plus the underwater tombs of unknown dozens of sailors.

Michigan state archeologist John Halsey says Thunder Bay, near the town of Alpena, contains one of the densest concentrations of shipwrecks in North America, owing to its proximity to Great Lakes shipping channels, its navigational hazards and its promise--often false--of shelter from storm.

A 30-page inventory, prepared as part of planning for the sanctuary, includes details of the 45 best-known wrecks. A sample:

* The 200-foot Pweabic, carrying passengers and copper ingots, collided bow-on with a sister ship, the Meteor, on Aug. 9, 1865, and sank. Loss of life estimated at 125. Now resting in 170 feet of water.

* On Nov. 9, 1913, a gale of shocking force raked the Great Lakes. The 504-foot Isaac M. Scott, carrying coal from Cleveland to Milwaukee, was pounded by 35-foot waves and erratic winds of 60 to 70 miles an hour. She foundered and sank with the loss of all 28 crew members. This same storm took the lives of 150 other seamen on Lake Huron. The Scott now rests in Thunder Bay, upside down, half buried in mud, at a depth of 175 feet.

* On Nov. 19, 1966, the steamer Nordmeer, carrying coils of steel wire, ran aground after its crew miscalculated a turn. Salvage was thwarted by a storm a few days later, requiring Coast Guard rescue of its crew. The Nordmeer lies in the bay, part of its hull still above water.

Thunder Bay will be the nation's 13th marine sanctuary, the only one in fresh water. These sanctuaries have been created in the last quarter-century to offer park-like recognition and varying degrees of federal protection to areas deemed "underwater treasures." Mostly, the sanctuaries encompass natural resources of particular importance. Thunder Bay will be the second devoted to protecting man-made artifacts, the other being a square-mile sanctuary around the wreckage of the Civil War ironclad ship the Monitor, off North Carolina.

"With more history underwater than in all the museums of the world, it's important to be protecting some of it," said Norman Y. Mineta, secretary of the Commerce Department, which oversees America's marine sanctuaries.

Unlike corrosive salt water, the cold, fresh water of Lake Huron acts as almost a preservative on a drowned vessel. Local historians say there are few places in the world where so many shipwrecks exist in such pristine condition.

John McConnell, a scuba diver with the Thunder Bay Underwater Preserve Committee, describes descending through the chilly, murky water on a buoy line. Suddenly, a dark shape materializes below. One is overwhelmed by the size of a ship underwater. Closer, one can see the wood of the hull as solid as the day the vessel went down a century ago, perhaps with its name plainly legible on a plank.

In the deeper wrecks, those that have not been salvaged or looted, it is possible to see silverware spilled out of a ship's galley and maybe a compass last held by a frantic and doomed captain who searched for haven in a gale.

It is quiet on the bottom. But McConnell says divers find their emotions transported back to long-ago struggles above. "Being there puts you back in that storm," he says.

To gaze upon these wrecks is also to behold a graveyard. Some of these dead ships are certain to hold human remains, sailors lost to the lake.

Today, 2,000 or so divers visit the bottom of the bay each year. Some travel from other continents. Plans for the new sanctuary call for construction of an interpretive center near Alpena, where thousands more will have a chance to go below via video.

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