Dive into the past at Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse and learn why ‘shipwrecks don’t just happen’

You may know the story of the Titanic, the luxury ocean liner that struck an iceberg on its maiden voyage and quickly sank to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. But did you know that another large ship met a similar fate off Michigan’s coastline just three years earlier?

“We got around to the men struggling in the water as quickly as possible,” the surviving Capt. Timese Lemay reported in the days following the Eber Ward’s sinking. “Some had grabbed the wreckage. Others were holding fast to pieces of the ice floe. We pulled six into our boat. Then I looked for the others. They were gone. Nothing but pieces of wreckage, some ice and a few bubbles showed where they had been.” (Photo credit: Cliff Roberts, Straits of Mackinac Shipwreck Preserve)

  The Straits of Mackinac Shipwreck Museum at Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse tells the story:

It was April 1909 when the Eber Ward departed Chicago on its first trip of the spring. The wooden freighter picked up a load of corn in Milwaukee and then charted a course up and around Michigan’s Lower Peninsula toward Port Huron.

The day was calm and sunny as the ship neared the present-day location of the Mackinac Bridge. But as is often the case in early spring on the Straits of Mackinac, the thawing water still was quite slushy. And unfortunately, there were large chunks of solid ice, too.

Going too fast for the conditions, the Eber Ward slammed into an ice floe that ripped a hole in the ship’s bow, filling the peaceful morning with a surge of panic among the 16 crewmen. Within 10 minutes, the 213-foot-long freighter had disappeared.

One of two lifeboats safely launched, while the other was capsized by the sinking ship. Eleven men went into the water. Five were never found.

Shipwrecks in the Straits of Mackinac are ‘usually someone’s fault’

  The Eber Ward is one of more than 100 wrecks that remain on the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac, the narrow passage from Lake Michigan to Lake Huron between Michigan’s Lower and Upper peninsulas. Each one has its own incredible story of human tragedy, from the “Sandusky,” an 1850s sailing vessel that was overwhelmed by waves and is the oldest-known shipwreck in the Straits of Mackinac, to the “Cedarville,” a 600-foot modern freighter that went down after a collision in heavy fog in 1965.

  Each of those three wrecks occurred for different reasons. Yet, they illustrate the museum’s overriding theme: “Shipwrecks don’t just happen,” says Craig P. Wilson, chief curator for Mackinac State Historic Parks. “It’s usually someone’s fault.”

  Museum visitors get to see exactly what caused the various shipwrecks in the Straits of Mackinac. And there are artifacts from the ships on display, including the original figurehead from the Sandusky, kitchenware from the galley of the Eber Ward and, ironically, a paper safety placard from the Cedarville. There’s even a revolver that was recovered from a wooden freighter that was cut by ice and sank in 1894.

  The Straits of Mackinac Shipwreck Museum also features dive footage from the wrecks. You can see the Eber Ward’s damaged hull, which sits upright and intact about 140 feet below the surface, as well as the damaged lifeboat that went down with the ship. And there are three sets of models that show the Sandusky, Eber Ward and Cedarville as they appeared while in service, and how they look now on the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac.

RELATED: See underwater footage of the Sandusky

Plan a visit to the Straits of Mackinac Shipwreck Museum at Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse

  The “Titanic” movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio still ranks among the highest-grossing Hollywood features ever. And just like the Titanic, the shipwrecks in the Straits of Mackinac are fascinating, too.

  Yet, they’re also sobering. In many cases, people lost their lives. As Wilson notes, “there is a real human cost to these events” as people suffered the consequences of their own or other people’s decisions.

  Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse and the Straits of Mackinac Shipwreck Museum are open daily through Oct. 10 this year. In addition to the museum, the historic site at the southern end of the Mackinac Bridge in Mackinaw City features a “Shipwrecks of the Straits” movie, daily demonstrations of a fog signal whistle and a lighthouse keeper’s quarters with period settings and exhibits about the science of lighthouses and what life was like for the people who lived there.

  The lighthouse tower itself is currently closed.

Gardens and Good Things to Eat

Everyone loves a good meal, including the historic residents of Michilimackinac! Join historic interpreters to tour and help maintain the fort’s gardens, assist with running the outdoor bread oven (and taste the results!), watch meals cooked over an open fire, and learn more about the unique food cultures of Michilimackinac’s French, British, and Native American residents. All special programs included with regular admission to Colonial Michilimackinac. #thisismackinac

Schedule of Events:

9:00 a.m. – Colonial Michilimackinac Open for the Day
9:30 a.m. – Musket Firing Demonstration followed by Military Food Program
10:00 a.m. – Gardens of Michilimackinac Tour
11:00 a.m. – Breadmaking and Oven Demonstration
12:00 p.m. – Indigenous Food and the Fur Trade Program
12:30 p.m. – Artillery Demonstration
1:0o p.m. – Gardens of Michilimackinac Tour
2:00 p.m. – Artillery Demonstration
3:00 p.m. – 18th Century Botany and Art
4:00 p.m. – Breadmaking and Oven Demonstration
5:00 p.m. – Gardens of Michilimackinac Tour
6:00 p.m. – Musket Firing Demonstration followed by Military Food Program
7:00 p.m. – Colonial Michilimackinac Closed for the Day

Gardens and Good Things to Eat

Everyone loves a good meal, including the historic residents of Michilimackinac! Join historic interpreters to tour and help maintain the fort’s gardens, assist with running the outdoor bread oven (and taste the results!), watch meals cooked over an open fire, and learn more about the unique food cultures of Michilimackinac’s French, British, and Native American residents. All special programs included with regular admission to Colonial Michilimackinac. #thisismackinac

Schedule of Events:

9:00 a.m. – Colonial Michilimackinac Open for the Day
9:30 a.m. – Musket Firing Demonstration followed by Military Food Program
10:00 a.m. – Gardens of Michilimackinac Tour
11:00 a.m. – Breadmaking and Oven Demonstration
12:00 p.m. – Indigenous Food and the Fur Trade Program
12:30 p.m. – Artillery Demonstration
1:0o p.m. – Gardens of Michilimackinac Tour
2:00 p.m. – Artillery Demonstration
3:00 p.m. – 18th Century Botany and Art
4:00 p.m. – Breadmaking and Oven Demonstration
5:00 p.m. – Gardens of Michilimackinac Tour
6:00 p.m. – Musket Firing Demonstration followed by Military Food Program
7:00 p.m. – Colonial Michilimackinac Closed for the Day

Shifting Sands

Remains of the lighthouse dock in April 2021.

The high water levels of the Great Lakes in recent years have caused significant erosion along the shoreline, exposing many long-buried landscape features. This year, water levels have fallen slightly, revealing previously-buried or submerged pieces of the past. The dock remains currently visible in front of the Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse are but one example of how the power of the Great Lakes can alternately hide and reveal reminders of our maritime history.

The dock may have been the first element of the light station to be built, as it would have been necessary to receive materials for the construction of the original fog signal building in 1890. According to the 1894 Annual Report, “the landing crib was carried away by ice.” A replacement was completed the following year. It is depicted on a 1907 map as extending 198 feet out into the straits.

Keeper George Marshall greets a lighthouse inspector on the station dock. 

The dock was gone by 1921, when the District Superintendent explained in letter to the Commissioner of Lighthouses that it was not necessary to construct a new dock because “supplies and fuel can be unloaded at a city dock and transported to the Station.”

The remains of the dock you see today are over one hundred years old and fragile. Please do not disturb them. Archaeological remains such as the dock, whether located on land within Michilimackinac State Park or submerged in the waters of the Straits of Mackinac Underwater Preserve, are protected by state law.

More information about the Old Mackinac Point Light Station can be found in Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse: A History and Pictorial Souvenir by MSHP Director Steve Brisson, available at MSHP museum stores. Visit our website to order a copy, or for more information about visiting Old Mackinac Point.

 

The Project Goes On…

In 2004, Mackinac State Historic Parks began a long-term project to restore the original buildings at the Old Mackinac Point Light Station and reconstruct the missing elements. The station is well documented, but archaeology has played a role, too.

 The lighthouse in 1918. The privy can be seen to the right.

   The most recent archaeological effort involved the free-standing privy, originally located about six feet west of the warehouse which now houses the Straits of Mackinac Shipwreck Museum. The privy was demolished after the light station was connected to the Mackinaw City sewer system in 1929. The remains of the brick privy foundation were found through test excavations in 2013. At that time, the focus was on locating the privy ruins so they could be avoided during the reconstruction of the warehouse.

   A privy incorporated into the original “barn” was located during test excavations in 2004 prior to the structure being returned to its original location. Those excavations revealed that the privy had been cleaned out and filled with sand after it was abandoned.

Dr. Lynn Evans on site.

   Recent test excavation at the site of the free-standing privy was designed to determine if it had also been cleaned out after it was no longer in use. A 1’ x 1’ square was excavated in the interior of the privy area. The different soils encountered were removed and screened separately. The top three layers (a total of 13.5” deep) were deposited as part of MSHP’s restoration work and dated to the 2014 construction of the warehouse, the 2013 test excavation and landscaping carried out in 2006-07 respectively. Below that were two layers (a total of 6.5” thick) from mid- to late twentieth century parking lots and driveways. Below that was a thick (17”) layer of mottled clay. It has been seen in previous excavations at the light station capping pre-1929 features. Only a few artifacts were found during this test excavation, but most of them, three nails and some coal, came from this layer.

This image shows the soil layers in the testpit. From the top: rocky fill from 2014; gold sand from 2013; brown fill from 2006-07; rocky roadbed from mid-twentieth century; mottled pink and gray sand from 1929.

   What was below the clay layer would answer the question of if the privy had been cleaned out. We expected to find beach sand if it had been cleaned and rich, artifact-bearing soil if it had not. What we found was black sandy loam containing only one fragment of window glass. After only two inches, something very solid was encountered and the testpit was complete. Because the testpit was over three feet deep at this point, it was being excavated with posthole diggers and it was difficult to get a good look at the bottom of the pit.

   We still don’t know for sure that the privy was not cleaned out, but the results of this test indicate that it would be worthwhile to carry out a larger scale excavation. In the meantime, we know that the original foundation and privy deposit are deep enough that the privy can be reconstructed without damaging them. Check our website for further updates, but also consider making a donation to Mackinac Associates, which helps fund our ongoing archaeological programs.

 

 

 

Michilimackinac Secrets and Scandals: Histsory Revealed

This new themed weekend will present visitors with a variety of programs focusing on some of Michilimackinac’s lesser known history. Each program will examine an aspect of the Michilimackinac’ past that caused the original residents to gossip and share secrets with one another. All special programs and events included with regular admission to Colonial Michilimackinac. A Mackinac Parks: 125 event!