Great Lakes Shipwreck Research Methods

Brendon Baillod


            One of the most interesting aspects of wreckdiving is learning the story of a vessel and its subsequent accident before diving it.  Sometimes this involves reading a book or talking with a dive charter captain to learn a little about the wreck’s history.  However, so many wrecks litter the Great Lakes that divers often find little or no information about many of the wrecks they visit.  Very few Great Lakes marine accidents were widely known prior to the publication of contemporary Great Lakes marine history books by Dwight Boyer and Dana Thomas Bowen.  Prior to their books, most Great Lakes shipwrecks were little more than the faded memories of oldtimers.  Recently, numerous authors and divers have begun researching and publishing accounts of obscure Great Lakes shipwrecks.  Uncovering the stories behind Great Lakes ships and their accidents has become an exciting and fascinating avocation for many Great Lakes divers and new wrecks are being found every year by divers who spend time in the library as well as in the water.

            Two terms shipwreck researchers should be familiar with are “primary” and “secondary” resources.  Primary historical resources are usually first or second hand reports of an accident which were gathered or published at the time of the accident, while secondary resources are generally the published work of researchers who have collected data from primary resources.  Secondary resources are often a good starting point for establishing the existence of a wreck or accident. Primary resources however, are essential for discovering new historical wrecks or fleshing out fragmentary information on existing wrecks. Before turning to primary resources, it is a good idea to check all secondary resources to make sure you are not conducting redundant research. 

            Many primary and secondary resources for Great Lakes shipwreck research are listed in Chuck and Jeri Feltner’s 1982 book Great Lakes Maritime History: Bibliography and Sources of Information.  Their book is an important guide for Great Lakes shipwreck researchers and lists nearly all the important works and major repositories for Great Lakes nautical history up to 1982.  Another very important secondary resource is the ongoing research of historian David Swayze.  His 1991 book Shipwreck! lists data on almost 4000 Great Lakes shipwrecks, and his ongoing research has since grown to include perhaps twice that number.  Any wrecks that are not in David Swayze’s Wrecklist are truly obscure.  Other important resources are the collections of research libraries such as the Milwaukee Pubic Library’s Herman Runge Collection, the Canal Park Museum at Duluth, the Institute for Great Lakes Research at Perrysburg, Ohio and Detroit’s Dossin Great Lakes Museum.  These libraries boast massive indices and catalogs containing photos and history on many thousands of Great Lakes vessels.  Many of these indices are now computerized for quick research and a few are even available on-line via the internet. Other important secondary resources are books by local and regional authors.  Aside from the obvious books about Great Lakes shipwrecks, many obscure, self published books on local history list excellent shipwreck information.  County, city and regional historical societies are also excellent resources for information on obscure local vessels.    

            Other very important sources for Great Lakes shipwreck information are the various vessel registers and directories produced in the latter 1800s by insurers and the government. In 1867 the Treasury Department began producing a yearly directory of US Merchant Vessels.  These directories, which are still produced today in electronic form, list various info, depending on the year, including tonnage, year built, builder, year built and lost and many other demographics for Great Lakes vessels.  Another important directory is the Inland Lloyds Register.  Inland Lloyds cataloged insured vessels and published a yearly listing of all Great Lakes vessels that were insured beginning in 1856.  These directories also list many demographics and often contain information on obscure vessels that can be found nowhere else.  Other important registers which list information on Great Lakes vessels are the Beeson’s Marine Directory (1887 - 1921), Green’s Marine Directory (1908 - 1954) and Polks Marine Directory (1880s,1890s).  Many other directories exist for Great Lakes vessels of the early 1900s and are mentioned in Feltner’s Bibliography.   



            The best primary resources for information on Great Lakes shipwrecks are commercial and sport fishermen. They know where their nets and lines snag and often keep LORAN numbers on notorious snags.  More wrecks have been found through the reports of fishermen than by any other means.  The second best primary resources are newspapers.  As early as the 1820s, newspapers ran columns devoted exclusively to Great Lakes marine news.  These papers carried word of all known accidents, regardless of severity and usually reported all salvage work on wrecks as well as vessel movements in and out of major ports.  Many of these papers have been preserved on microfilm as far back as the 1820s and are now extremely valuable sources for archival information.  Among those papers which reveal the most information on Great Lakes wrecks are the Milwaukee Sentinel, the Lake Superior Journal, the Duluth Minnesotian, the Marquette Mining Journal, the Chicago Inter-Ocean, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Buffalo Morning Express, Oswego Herald and the Detroit Free Press. Numerous other community newspapers also carried news of shipwrecks if they occurred in the area.  Today, the repositories for these newspaper microfilms are local and regional libraries.  Researchers who wish to make use of newspapers must however, know at least the year, and preferably the date of an accident.  Without a date, researchers have the thankless task of reading through months and even years of newspapers in order to find perhaps one cryptic entry.  However, researchers who have been forced to do this are often rewarded by finding accounts of other previously unknown wrecks. 

            Perhaps we know only the name of a vessel and have no idea when she wrecked.  We have checked all known secondary resources and they don’t list her.  We might then look at the vessel’s “enrollment” records. Sometimes referred to as a registry or certificate, a vessel’s enrollment certificate is like a birth certificate.  Beginning around 1812, all American merchant vessels on the Great Lakes were required to carry a Certificate of Enrollment issued by customs houses at major ports.  Beginning in 1867, all merchant vessels were also assigned an “official number” when they were enrolled.  An official number is like a fingerprint which stayed with a vessel throughout her life even if her name changed.  Official numbers are particularly useful in identifying the many vessels which changed names multiple times and in identifying multiple vessels with common names such as the many vessels named “Mary” or “Ann.” 

            When a vessel was first launched, she was given an enrollment certificate and had to surrender it and get a new one any time she changed tonnage, dimensions, rig, owners, captains, home ports, or was wrecked. Certificates of Enrollment give a tremendous amount of information about a vessel.  They list her owner, master, builder, gross and net tonnage, official number (before 1867), dimensions, rig, year and place built, type of stem and stern, date and place of current and previous registry and reason for surrender of certificate.  These vessel enrollments have been preserved by the National Archives and are available on microfilm at several research libraries in the midwest.  It is through vessel enrollment certificates that we know the names of many historic Lake captains as well as the dimensions and description of many historic vessels.

            The enrollments for many Great Lakes ports have been compiled into chronological indices which list dates and places of subsequent enrollments as well as the reasons for subsequent surrendering of certificates.  Using these indices it is possible to trace the entire career of a Great Lakes vessel.  We can find each time she was sold and to whom, who all her captains were, when and if she was rebuilt or rerigged, if she changed home ports or names, and most importantly, when and if she wrecked. Finding a vessel enrollment that was surrendered as “vessel lost,” “abandoned” or “wrecked” indicates that the vessel probably never sailed again.  It also gives us an idea of the year and possibly the month that the vessel was lost. However, some owners and captains waited months and even years to surrender a vessel’s papers, while holding out hope for salvage.  Subsequently, surrendered enrollments can give only an estimate of when the vessel wrecked, but they also provide a great deal of vessel information and can save a good deal of time searching through newspapers.

            Another important primary resource for information on Great Lakes shipwrecks is the US Lifesaving service. In 1874 the US Government established many Lifesaving Stations on the Great Lakes in response to the appalling loss of life caused by shipwrecks.  Staffed by well trained and fearless crews, these stations kept regular watches and responded to any reports of marine accidents regardless of the weather.  Using only small surfboats, these “storm warriors” often lost their own lives trying to save those of shipwrecked sailors.  The harrowing accounts of their daring rescues have been preserved by the National Archives and are both fascinating and dramatic.  The Station Keepers were responsible for recording the handwritten accounts of each call the crew went out on, and these are now available at selected research libraries in the midwest.  Abbreviated versions of these accounts are also available in the printed hardcover Annual Report of the US Lifesaving Service, which runs from 1876 - 1914.

            Often overlooked as primary resources for shipwreck information, archival and modern maps and charts commonly show the location of shipwreck remains.  Many old ships were abandoned in harbors and waterways without a second thought and their identities have since faded into history.  Their remains however, sometimes offer unparalleled wreckdiving and excellent opportunities for archeological investigation.  Older charts in particular are likely to show the location of long forgotten wrecks and many research libraries have map collections dating back to the early 1800s.

            Probably the most important historical work ever written about the Great Lakes was John Brandt Mansfield’s 1899 epic History of the Great Lakes.  This rare two volume series is simply unbelievable in the amount and scope of information it contains.  Mansfield attempted to list every vessel that ever sailed the Lakes before 1899, as well as every shipwreck.  The result was a massive index which preserved historical information on many obscure vessels that would have otherwise been lost. These volumes have become standard research tools for Great Lakes historians and aside from vessel enrollments, are one of the best sources for information on Great Lakes vessels of the 1800s.      

            When conducting research into shipwrecks it is also important to contact other divers.  More than a few divers have spent long hours searching for a “virgin” wreck only to find that local divers had been visiting it for years.  Divers today are increasingly willing to share wreck locations with other responsible divers.  In this regard, it may be valuable to attend some of the annual meetings and conferences where Great Lakes wreckdivers and historians gather.  The annual Gales of November Conference at Duluth, Minnesota is a great place to network with other divers, as are Chicago’s annual Our World Underwater Conference and Milwaukee’s Ghost Ships Festival.  The premier event of this sort is probably the Great Lakes Shipwreck Festival hosted annually by the Ford Seahorses dive club in the Detroit area.  It has been held for over 20 years and attracts thousand of divers and researchers each year.  It is also very helpful to become involved with one of the many volunteer organizations for Great Lakes wreckdivers. Such organizations have developed to assist State and Provincial Underwater Archeology efforts and to maintain and monitor underwater preserves.  The Wisconsin Underwater Archeology Association, the Underwater Archeology Society of Chicago, Save Ontario Shipwrecks and Preserve Our Wrecks are examples of active organizations involved in research and preservation of submerged historic and cultural resources.  They offer many opportunities for divers to receive training in Underwater Archeological survey methods and to network with other divers and historians.

            Believe it or not, the internet is also rapidly becoming an excellent resource for Great Lakes shipwreck divers and historians.  Many websites are available that list locational and historical information on wrecks.  The Great Lakes Shipwreck Research Website is an important hub for researchers seeking a central starting point.  Some research facilities have also placed their catalogs online in searchable databases. The Milwaukee Public Library recently placed the index to its Great Lakes Marine Collection online.  Another online database that is interesting is the NOAA Submerged Obstruction Database, which contains LON/LAT coords for many unknown obstructions.  This database however, is rather difficult to use and contains a lot of inaccurate information.  The Marine Museum of the Great Lakes at Kingston has placed several databases online including its file on Canadian vessel enrollments.  Save Ontario Shipwrecks has also placed several large databases online in its Marine Heritage Database.


The main sites used by Great Lakes maritime history researchers are as follows:


  • Great Lakes Shipwreck Research – A main hub for locating other Great Lakes maritime history and diving websites. Features an online newsgroup, bookstore, dive and research directories as well as regional content devoted to Lake Michigan and Superior shipwrecks.


  • Walter Lewis’ Great Lakes Maritime History Site – The most important online repository for archival documents and vessel enrollments.  Currently contains several important archival vessel registers as well as an online database of all Great Lakes vessel enrollments prior to 1861.



  • Maritime Museum of the Great Lakes at Kingston – Excellent online databases for Canadian vessel enrollments, Steamship lists, archival news articles.





  • The David Swayze Wrecklist – The most important online repository for Great Lakes shipwreck data in existence.  Several thousand wrecks are listed with complete demographics and details. References are cited and wrecks are meticulously researched.



  • Milwaukee Public Library Great Lakes Marine Collection – The Library’s catalog includes the 8,000 Vessel Files in the Great Lakes marine collection. The text of the vessel files can be accessed online.