'Icebound' dives into 1885 shipwreck

Becky Vargo • Apr 6, 2019 at 12:00 PM

A seasonal exhibit at the local museum takes area residents through a frigid journey on Lake Michigan ice, as a passenger steamship is abandoned — after being trapped in ice for a month — and the crew walks across jagged ice to the shore.

“Icebound: The Ordeal of the SS Michigan” can be viewed through September in the small gallery at the Tri-Cities Historical Museum, 200 Washington Ave.

The exhibit was created with the help of Craig Rich and Valerie van Heest of the Michigan Shipwreck Research Association. The story-driven exhibit is a timeline of what happened with the ship and its crew.

A February thaw was enough to encourage shipping companies to jump at the chance to do business during the winter of 1885, but a sudden storm engulfed the Great Lakes and trapped a steam ship in the ice about 10 miles offshore from Ludington. Company officials decided to send the double-hulled SS Michigan to the rescue of the Oneida, an easy assignment for the heavy-duty vessel that was homeported in Grand Haven.

The SS Michigan was 20 miles north of Grand Haven when the temperature dropped and thick pack ice formed, making it impossible to steer the 204-foot vessel. The ship had plenty of coal, but not enough food to keep the crew fed. After a week on the lake, the men were rationed to one meal per day.

Trapped in the ice, the ship drifted south, eventually being sighted off Saugatuck. A harbor tug named Arctic tried to get to the Michigan, but it became stuck within 4 miles of the larger ship. Still, the tug served as a resting spot for the last crew members heading to shore from the Michigan.

In previous days, other crew members spent a full day hiking about 18 miles across the pack ice to shore, guided by porter George Sheldon. They made shore in Allegan County, took shelter in a nearby farmhouse and then took a train to Grand Haven.

Sheldon gathered supplies and returned to the ship. He made the trek two more times before the last of the crew abandoned the ship and the ice crushed the hull when they were only a quarter-mile away.

The exhibit room is decorated to make a visitor feel immersed in the snow and ice, according to exhibits curator Jared Yax. There are also interactive displays to show people what kind of material might keep a person above water and what would have made it easier for someone to walk across the snow and ice.

There’s also a video of the shipwreck that was found by the Michigan Shipwreck Research Associates in 2005 with the use of side-scan sonar, which is also in the display. The ship was located about 18 miles west of Holland in about 270 feet of water.

‘Icebound’ lectures and events

A variety of monthly lectures and events are planned in conjunction with the exhibit. Admission is free. All of the events, with the exception of the one in August, will take place at the museum. They include:

— March 12, 6:30 p.m., lecture by Craig Rich, shipwreck historian and author, “For Those in Peril: Shipwrecks of Ottawa County.”

— April 11, 6:30 p.m., lecture by Ric Mixter, shipwreck writer and producer, “Deep Six: The Great Lakes’ Largest Shipwrecks.”

— May 2, 6:30 p.m., lecture and documentary by Valerie van Heest, director of the Michigan Shipwreck Research Association, “Icebound: The Ordeal of the SS Michigan.” 

— June 11, 6:30 p.m., lecture by Craig Rich, “The Mystery of the Lizzie Throop.”

— July 11, 6:30 p.m., lecture by Matthew Daley, associate professor of history at Grand Valley State University, “In the Wake of Disaster: The Lake Erie Black Friday Storm of 1916.”

— Aug. 20, 6:30 p.m., lecture by Rich Brauer, director of the documentary, “The Wreck and Rescue of the Schooner J.H. Hartzell.” Note the location for this lecture is at the Spring Lake District Library, 123 E. Exchange St.


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