Canada’s shipwrecks are tantalizing time capsules

Article content

April may well be the cruellest month, but as any Canadian music lover knows, it’s the storms of November that show no mercy.

Thanks to folksinger Gordon Lightfoot, the cruel abyss that is Lake Superior and its “never-give-up-its-dead” late-autumn tempests are legend.

The Ontario-born musician immortalized the lake’s vengeful fury, and Canada’s best-known shipwreck, in his enduring ballad, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Released in 1976, its haunting lyrics commemorate the sinking of the iron ore-carrying freighter in 1975 with the loss of all 29 lives onboard.

At 82,100 square kilometres — bigger than New Brunswick — with a maximum depth of 400 metres, “Gitche Gumee” is the largest of the Great Lakes and big enough to create its own microclimate, a fact brutally laid bare on the night of Nov. 10 when the Fitzgerald’s captain, Ernest McSorley, reported rapidly deteriorating conditions.

Advertisement

Story continues below
This advertisement has not loaded yet, but your article continues below.

Article content

The official investigation into the sinking blamed leaking cargo hatches, but other theories have blamed rogue waves and structural failure. Once the biggest vessel on the Great Lakes, it lies, split in two, at the bottom of the lake about 18 km west of Coppermine Point, which is the closest landfall.

At Pancake Bay Provincial Park, the Edmund Fitzgerald Lookout provides sweeping views of the area where the ship went down, while the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum in Whitefish Point, Mich., attracts more than 75,000 visitors each season to learn more about the perils of maritime transport.

Whitefish Point marks a critical turning point for vessels entering the “deceivingly beautiful” Superior, and the museum serves as a solemn memorial. Its prized exhibit is the Fitzgerald’s 90-kg bronze bell, recovered in 1995 in a joint Canadian-U.S. expedition as family members observed. Also featured are the “lost Fitzgerald search tapes,” a chilling recording of radio chatter between the Coast Guard and the Arthur M. Anderson sailing alongside.

The Great Lakes are rich hunting grounds for shipwreck tourists. And you needn’t be an advanced scuba diver to appreciate these treasure chests of the deep.

At Fathom Five National Marine Park in Tobermory, Ont., more than 20 historic shipwrecks tempt novice snorkellers and seasoned underwater explorers. From schooners to steamers to a 1930s-built “sandsucker” scuppered as a dive site in 1999, the park is shallow enough to offer tantalizing views from standup paddleboards or on glass-bottomed boat tours.

Advertisement

Story continues below
This advertisement has not loaded yet, but your article continues below.

Article content

Pride of place goes to the Canadian schooner Sweepstakes, which sank in 1885 in just seven metres of water and is one of the best-preserved wrecks in the Great Lakes. No catalogue of marine catastrophes is complete without mention of the April 1912 Titanic, but less well-trod is the story of the RMS Empress of Ireland — the “Canadian Titanic.” Sailing to Liverpool from Quebec, the ocean liner collided with a Norwegian cargo ship in the foggy mouth of the

St. Lawrence River in 1914, sending 1,012 people to a watery grave in less than 15 minutes. In 2009, the wreck was declared a national historic site as the most complete example of an early 20th century passenger ship. Expeditions for experienced divers can be arranged, while a museum in Rimouski, Que., provides an immersive exhibition.

Long before the Titanic or the Empress of Ireland, the world’s press — and Victorians enamoured of the newly arrived camera — were gripped by the foundering of the SS Atlantic off the Nova Scotia coast as it steamed toward New York. A total of 565 passengers and crew were lost in what was then the world’s worst merchant vessel disaster.

The SS Atlantic Heritage Park in Terence Bay, N.S., commemorates the story with the ship’s anchor, a White Star Line flag belonging to the ship’s captain and a 1905 monument marking the mass burial site of 277 victims, among other artifacts recovered over the years.

It’s estimated at least 5,000 vessels have foundered on the rocky Nova Scotia coastline over the centuries, making it one of Canada’s most significant sites for marine archeologists and divers.

Advertisement

Story continues below
This advertisement has not loaded yet, but your article continues below.

Article content

More recently, the world’s attention was focused on Canada’s far north, with the discovery of HMS Terror and HMS Erebus, the ships lost during the doomed 1845 Franklin expedition to find the Northwest Passage. The frigid Arctic waters have left them remarkably well preserved, Parks Canada archaeologists say, with tantalizing glimpses of scientific instruments still in their cases and ornate dinner plates lining the officers mess.

Parks Canada offers an “unprecedented look inside the wreck of HMS Terror” through guided video tours.

Sodden secrets continue to be unveiled. In 2018, explorers discovered the remains of the Manasoo steamship in Ontario’s Georgian Bay — complete with a barnacle-encrusted 1927 Chevy in the cargo hold. The car, believed to have belonged to one of the ship’s surviving passengers, was in “excellent condition” despite the vessel having sunk more than 90 years ago, CTV said at the time.

Researcher Cris Kohl, who led the discovery, estimates there are 7,000 foundered vessels in the Great Lakes, with only about 2,000 discovered.

In eastern Lake Ontario, many ships came to grief before they reached the St. Lawrence and tour operator Ganonque Boat Line (ganboatline.com) has made it easy to learn more through its Lost Ships of the 1,000 Islands Cruise. Deploying video and audio commentary alongside side-scan sonar images, it brings their stories to life in safety and comfort.

Shipwrecks tug on our sense of mystery and nostalgia, lurking just beyond reach but forever frozen in time.

“It’s like a Polaroid,” says Parks Canada archeologist Marc-Andre Bernier, quoted in 2014 on the 100th anniversary of the Empress of Ireland disaster. “Sometimes it’s difficult to see the separation between eras, or even between events. A shipwreck shows a specific time and specific place.”

— Andre Ramshaw

News Near Cochrane

This Week in Flyers