Thumb Area Bottomland Preserve: Port Austin, Michigan

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The Thumb Area Bottomland Preserve is only one of Michigan's many shipwreck preserves. Much of the shipping traffic transiting Lake Huron passes offshore of Michigan's "thumb," and those ships have seen their share of storms and collisions. The Preserve's website (see bottom of page for link) says that "at least 22 major shipwrecks lie in and around the Thumb Area Underwater Preserve." We visited a handful of these wrecks in July 2019, but it only served to whet our appetite, and I'm sure a return trip is in order!

Left-to-Right: Philadelphia, E.P. Dorr, Detroit, Daniel J. Morrell (all July 2019)
Chart of Port Austin area (Google Earth)Pointe Aux Barques Lighthouse

Detroit (May 25, 1854; 200 feet deep)

The paddlewheel steamship Detroit was built for Eber and Samual Ward--shipbuilders and iron and steel manufacturers. Eber Brock Ward was one of the richest men in the Midwest in his day. (In one of history's fascinating cross-pollinations, one of the most beautiful shipwreck's sunk in Mackinac Straits was named after the industrialist: Eber Ward.) Built in 1846, Detroit was sunk off Pointe aux Barque on May 25, 1854 in a collision with the barque Nucleus. Today Detroit sits essentially upright in nearly 200 feet of water in a remarkable state of preservation.

The paddlewheeler Detroit is surely one of the signature shipwrecks in the Thumb Area Bottomland Preserve, and a "must see" dive (both July 2019).

E.P. Dorr (June 28, 1856; 170 feet deep)

The wooden tug E.P. Dorr was sunk in a collision with the Oliver Cromwell only a year after she was launched.

The skeleton of a lifeboat(s) lies alongside the tug E.P. Dorr on the bottom of Lake Huron.

Daniel J. Morrell (November 29, 1966; 200 feet deep)

Daniel J. Morrell may be the most famous shipwreck in the Thumb Region of Lake Huron. A 600-foot long bulk freighter built in 1906, she sailed the lakes for 60 years before meeting up with one-too-many November storms. In her advanced age, 25-foot seas proved more than the old girl could handle, and the ship cracked in half. Some of the crew watched from a liferaft as the stern section of the ship sailed away, while the bow sank to the bottom. The stern later sank as well, some five miles from the bow section. There was only one survivor from the ship, Dennis Hale, who spent 38 hours on a raft in the cold November seas before being rescued.

The Morrell's bow section sits perfectly upright on the bottom of Lake Huron, a seemingly picture-perfect shipwreck.
The Morrell's stern also sits upright on the Lake bottom. The ship's stern steering station is nearly covered with the ever-present zebra mussels (above left), as is a lifeboat sitting on the bottom next to the ship's stern (above right).

Philadelphia (November 7, 1893; 125 feet deep)

in the early morning hours of November 6, 1893, two steamers were feeling their way through a dense fog when they ran into each other. The Philadelphia struck the slightly larger Albany midships. The entire crew of the crippled Albany were transferred to the Philadelphia and the cripple taken in tow. The situation was hopeless for both ships, however, and they both sank within 30 minutes of each other.

Divers exploring the bow (right) and stern (left) of the steamer Philadelphia; both ends are intact and look like a ship is supposed to look. Note the bow damage caused by the ship's collision with the Albany. (both July 2019).

Links to dive operators and websites in the Great Lakes region:

Thumb Area Bottomland Preserve website

Thumb Area Bottomland Preserved

Michigan Underwater Preserves website

Michigan Underwater Preserves

Special thanks to Backscatter, the Premier source for underwater photography and video equipment.

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All images, text and content Copyright © Bradley Sheard. All rights reserved.