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Lake Superior Shipwrecks: Explore 8 Famous Wrecks

Learn about the hunt for shipwrecks on Lake Superior and hear the story of the remarkable discovery of the SS Arlington.


Photo credits: Christian Dalbec 


A diver and a shipwreck in Lake Superior

Lake Superior, the largest of the Great Lakes, holds a wealth of history and intrigue beneath its surface. Shipwrecks dot the lake's floor, remnants of a bygone era when maritime travel was the lifeline of the region. The vastness of the lake and the deep waters make finding shipwrecks a difficult task, requiring advanced technology and meticulous research.


Author, shipwreck historian, and researcher Dan Fountain is up to the task. In a recent interview on the Lake Superior Podcast, he shares his experiences and insights into the world of shipwreck hunting and the recent discovery of the Arlington, a shipwreck with a captivating story.


Listen to a sampling of the podcast episode below:




8 Famous Shipwrecks In Lake Superior


A shipwreck in Lake Superior

Interested in learning more about famous shipwreck stories?


Check out these 8 famous Lake Superior shipwreck stories, including the recently discovered SS Arlington.



The SS Edmund Fitzgerald

The SS Edmund Fitzgerald, once the largest ship on North America's Great Lakes, tragically sank during a fierce storm on November 10, 1975, claiming the lives of all 29 crew members. Laden with iron ore pellets and measuring over 700 feet long, the vessel disappeared without issuing a distress signal.


Its mysterious demise has since become one of the most infamous maritime disasters in the history of the Great Lakes, captivating the imaginations of countless people around the world and immortalized in song, literature, and collective memory. 



The SS Bannockburn

Amidst snowy conditions on Lake Superior, the SS Bannockburn, a 244-foot Canadian-registered steel bulk freight steamer, vanished without a trace on November 21, 1902, carrying 85,000 bushels of Manitoba wheat.


Despite extensive searches, the shipwreck remains undiscovered, save for the recovery of an oar and a life preserver, and no bodies were retrieved. Within a year of vanishing, the vessel gained notoriety as a phantom ship, earning the moniker "The Flying Dutchman of the Great Lakes."



The SS Cyprus

The SS Cyprus, a freighter ship, sank in Lake Superior on October 11, 1907, during a powerful gale storm, claiming the lives of 21 of 22 crew members. It sank on only its second voyage while hauling iron cargo across Lake Superior. It was rediscovered in August 2007 with the hull intact.


The vessel, measuring 420 feet in length, rests approximately eight miles north of Deer Park, a village situated in Michigan’s eastern Upper Peninsula. It was here that the lone survivor, Charles G. Pitz, arrived ashore after spending nearly seven hours adrift on a life raft.



The SS Emperor

The SS Emperor was a 525-foot-long bulk freighter. Carrying 10,429 tons of bulk iron ore, it met its demise when it struck Canoe Rocks on the northeast point of Isle Royale on June 4th, 1947, and sank in about 30 minutes. 12 crew members were lost. The Emperor's wreck stands as the latest among large vessels lost and ranks as the second-largest shipwreck off Isle Royale.


Resting in depths ranging from 25 to 175 feet (7.6 to 53.3 m), the wreck features a partially broken bow in shallow water, while the intact stern lies deeper. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the site has become a favored destination for recreational divers. 



The SS Mataafa

Constructed in the late 19th century, this 430-foot-long sturdy bulk carrier weathered storms and navigated treacherous passages with steadfast determination. However, on the stormy night of November 28, 1905, tragedy struck. Loaded with iron ore and towing the barge James Nasmyth, the Mataafa found itself at the mercy of Lake Superior's wrath.


Battling fierce winds and towering waves, the vessel ultimately succumbed to the forces of nature, wrecking near the town of Two Harbors, Minnesota. 


Despite being fractured in two and sustaining significant damage, the Mataafa was eventually salvaged approximately six months later. In 1906, it underwent a thorough reconstruction, amounting to nearly $100,000 in expenses, and continued its extensive service on the Great Lakes.



The SS Western Reserve

Constructed in 1890, the 301-foot SS Western Reserve was a propeller lake freighter. One of the first major steel freighters built for use on the Lakes, it met its tragic end on August 30, 1892, off Deer Park. Of the 27 individuals on board, only one man survived the ordeal.


The owner of the ship, Captain Peter G. Minch, was onboard the ship with his family for a vacation when it went down. The remnants of the Western Reserve have never been located.



The SS Henry B. Smith

The SS Henry B. Smith, a 545-foot bulk freighter ship, disappeared without a trace on November 9, 1913, during the devastating Great Lakes Storm of 1913, leading to one of the most enduring maritime mysteries of the Great Lakes.


Despite extensive search efforts, the wreck of the Henry B. Smith remained undiscovered for almost a century until it was finally located in May 2013, shedding new light on the tragic fate of the vessel and its crew. The sunken vessel rests below over 500 feet of water, situated approximately 30 miles from Marquette, Michigan.



The Hunt for Lake Superior’s Shipwrecks


A shipwreck in Lake Superior and people in kayaks above it

Shipwreck hunting on Lake Superior is not easy. With an estimated 550 shipwrecks scattered across the lake, and potentially half of them still waiting to be discovered, the search requires a combination of skills and support.


Author, researcher, and shipwreck historian Dan Fountain, in a recent interview about the discovery of the Arlington, explains that the vastness of the lake and the deep waters pose significant challenges. To narrow down the search area, he delves into old records, newspaper articles, and official reports to piece together the puzzle of a ship's final resting place.


Once a potential location is identified, Fountain and his team employ side-scanning sonar, a specialized technology that emits sonar beams to detect anomalies on the lake's bottom. This method involves meticulously scanning the area in parallel lines, covering vast stretches of the lake.


While the ideal scenario is a clear image of a shipwreck, often the sonar reveals smudges or blobs that require expert analysis to determine if they are indeed shipwrecks. Experience and expertise play a crucial role in identifying these anomalies and confirming their status as shipwrecks.


The Discovery of the SS Arlington

One of Fountain's recent discoveries, the SS Arlington, showcases the excitement and unpredictability of shipwreck hunting. While searching for another shipwreck, Fountain stumbled upon the Arlington's remains.


The Arlington had a unique story, making its discovery even more intriguing. The vessel sank on May 1, 1940, with Captain Frederick Burke and his crew on board. The captain, a highly experienced mariner, had been sailing for over 40 years. However, on this fateful voyage, he exhibited unusual behavior, staying in his cabin and leaving the command to the first and second mates.


As the weather worsened and the ship encountered rough waves, the crew struggled to secure the tarps covering the wooden hatches. Captain Burke's decisions and actions seemed erratic, leading to a series of unfortunate events that ultimately led to the Arlington's sinking.


The crew managed to abandon ship, but Captain Burke remained on board, going down with the vessel. The exact circumstances surrounding his decision to stay are unknown, leaving a sense of mystery and tragedy surrounding the Arlington's final moments.


Shipwrecks in Lake Superior Map


A map of shipwrecks in Lake Superior

Interested in learning where other shipwrecks are located? Several Lake Superior shipwreck maps can help.


Click here for a Shipwrecks in Lake Superior Map from Nathan Koski the maps creator, and Dave Swayze, creator of the data. 



Additionally, you can take a look at wrecks state by state. You can check out this map of Minnesota’s Lake Superior Shipwrecks from the Minnesota Historical Society, this map for Wisconsin Lake Superior shipwrecks, and this map for Michigan Lake Superior shipwrecks


The Fascination with Lake Superior's Shipwrecks


A Lake Superior shipwreck

The discovery of the Arlington and the ongoing search for other shipwrecks on Lake Superior captivate the imagination and highlight the rich history beneath the lake's surface. Shipwrecks serve as time capsules, preserving the stories of the past and offering glimpses into the lives of those who sailed the Great Lakes. Each shipwreck holds its own unique tale, from the challenges faced by the crew to the environmental conditions that led to their demise.


Shipwreck hunting not only satisfies the curiosity of historians and researchers but also contributes to the preservation and understanding of the region's maritime heritage. 


The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point and the Marquette Museum provide valuable resources for those interested in delving deeper into the stories of these lost vessels. You could also consider a glass-bottom shipwreck tour.


By uncovering the secrets of the past, shipwreck hunters like Dan Fountain shed light on the human experiences and tragedies that unfolded on Lake Superior.


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About The Lake Superior Podcast and NPLSF


The Lake Superior Podcast is a project of the National Parks of Lake Superior Foundation (NPLSF), the official nonprofit friends group for Lake Superior’s five national parks: Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Grand Portage National Monument, Isle Royale National Park, Keweenaw National Historical Park, and Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.


Funded through grants and private donations, NPLSF projects and programs ensure that these great parks and historic sites are maintained, improved, and celebrated for the enjoyment of all current and future visitors. For more information, contact us at info@nplsf.org.




Lake Superior Shipwreck FAQ


Why are there so many shipwrecks on Lake Superior?

Lake Superior’s vast expanse, unpredictable weather patterns, and rocky shores create a challenging environment for maritime navigation. Sudden shifts in weather, from dense fog to violent storms, add to the perilous conditions. These elements, coupled with the lake's numerous shoals and hazards, have led to a significant number of vessels meeting their fate beneath its waters. Thus, Lake Superior stands as both a majestic yet unforgiving realm for sailors, marked by a rich history of maritime tragedies.


How many shipwrecks are in Lake Superior? 

500 to 600 shipwrecks is the estimate of how many ships have sunk in Lake Superior since the 1850s given by the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society. Lake Superior has claimed thousands of boats, ships, and canoes throughout its storied history spanning centuries.


Where is Lake Superior’s Shipwreck Coast?

"Lake Superior's Shipwreck Coast'' is the moniker given to the area between Munising, Michigan, and Whitefish Point, where the haunting tales of approximately 200 shipwrecks lie. At Whitefish Point, the oldest operational lighthouse on Lake Superior stands sentinel. Alongside it stands a beacon of maritime history - the Shipwreck Museum.


How many shipwrecks are in The Great Lakes? 

The waters of the Great Lakes hold a shroud of mystery, as many ships have met their demise without ever being located. The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum ventures an estimation that 6,000 ships have sunk in the Great Lakes and a toll of 30,000 lives lost. In his 2004 book, Graveyard of the Lakes, historian and seafarer Mark Thompson posits a staggering figure, suggesting the total count of wrecks may surpass 25,000.


Which Great Lake has the most shipwrecks?

Lake Erie is widely regarded as having the most shipwrecks among the Great Lakes. Lake Erie is considered to have one of the highest concentrations of shipwrecks in the world.


What is the deepest shipwreck in Lake Superior and the Great Lakes?

Discovered in 2013, the SS Scotiadoc lies at a depth of 850 feet (259 meters), making it the deepest shipwreck found in not only Lake Superior but all of the Great Lakes.


What is the biggest shipwreck on Lake Superior and the Great Lakes?

The SS Edmund Fitzgerald is the largest vessel to have ever sunk in the Great Lakes. It also stood as the largest ship to navigate North America's Great Lakes when it was launched on June 8, 1958. 


Are there sharks in Lake Superior?

Sharks are not native to Lake Superior. The lake's cold temperatures and freshwater environment are not conducive to sustaining shark populations. Instead, divers exploring the sunken ships in Lake Superior are more likely to encounter a diverse array of freshwater fish species, including trout, salmon, walleye, and various smaller fish species. These underwater expeditions offer a unique opportunity to witness the well-preserved wrecks and explore the rich maritime history of the lake without the presence of sharks.


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