Rising from the depths

Alex Doty • Jul 21, 2015 at 12:01 PM

“Unlike most people in Grand Haven, we are eager for the water levels to drop further,” shipwreck expert William Lafferty said. “I have no idea how much lower these waters can possibly go.”

Shipwreck experts say the water around Harbor Island is littered with old ships. It's impossible to say just how many ships or ship parts lay off the island's coast, Lafferty said.

“I think that you could have a few dozen,” he said.

According to Lafferty, a maritime historian, the reason behind so many old ships there is because they were deposited around the island after they were no longer needed by construction material companies in the area.

“When these boats got old, they pushed them up on the banks and let them sit there,” Lafferty said. “That happened with Construction Materials late in the '40s.”

Lafferty noted that, back then, there were no zoning laws or a federal environmental agency in place that would prohibit or monitor ship dumping.

Lafferty and his partners discovered the identity of the Aurora off Harbor Island's shore last month. The wooden ship was originally used to transport iron ore from the Gogebic Range in the Upper Peninsula to Cleveland, Ohio, and coal from Cleveland on the return trip.

On Dec. 12, 1898, the Aurora burned to the water line in the Detroit River. The owners chose to rebuild the then-11-year-old vessel into a barge. In 1927, it was towed to Grand Haven and eventually burned in 1932.

“We’re still searching for the date that it was burned (in Grand Haven),” Michigan Shipwreck Research Associates Director Valerie van Heest. “I’d think that a big inferno down at the water would have generated an article.”

No one is certain about the identity of the other visible shipwrecks that have emerged around Harbor Island, van Heest said.

“We haven’t identified any of the other four,” she said. “They’re just too commonly built.”

The other vessels that have recently been made visible by the low water are a schooner, a double-ended vessel and two barges.

Van Heest said the size and unique construction of the Aurora helped researchers easily identify it.

In addition to providing clues for historical experts, history buffs say that the lower water also allows the public to get a firsthand look at some of the old shipwrecks. Lafferty noted that the only other way people can enjoy shipwrecks is if they are proficient divers and explore the wrecks below the water's surface.

Still, the public is warned to be considerate of the wrecks.

Van Heest said she has received several e-mails from people who are concerned about the public climbing on the wrecks and taking items from them. She said that is the risk that is taken when attention is drawn to these types of sites.

“This is like an outdoor museum," van Heest said. "You don’t go to a museum and take a piece home.”

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