2017-06-15 / Life in Leelanau

Wreck Quest

Museum, students map ships lost in bay
By Alan Campbell
Of The Enterprise staff


USE OF the research vessel “Northwestern” was leased from Northwestern Michigan College. USE OF the research vessel “Northwestern” was leased from Northwestern Michigan College. High interest in an expedition to map shipwrecks that had for decades rested invisibly at the bottom of Northport Bay has organizers of the program preparing for another voyage.

The Maritime Archaeology and Research Program had a successful first expedition during which 20 items of interest — some of them shipwrecks — were photographed and pinpointed on GPS.

“We basically set a course and went back and forth on Northport Bay to see what we could see. If they saw something that was manmade, they just clicked and marked the GPS coordinates,” explained Stef Staley, executive director of the Grand Traverse Lighthouse Museum.

The Lighthouse Museum and Northport Public School are collaborating on the project, which has shown sea legs. Staley said high interest has led to plans for a second expedition on Friday, June 23, aboard the “Northwestern,” a water studies boat owned by Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City.


NORTHPORT TEACHER Steve Wetherbee works with an NMC seaman to lower a sonar unit into Northport Bay. NORTHPORT TEACHER Steve Wetherbee works with an NMC seaman to lower a sonar unit into Northport Bay. Northport students have been the bones of the project. In November, students in grades 6-12 spent two days building underwater remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) and testing them in the pool at Northport Highlands.

“They were awesome,” Staley said of the Highlands, “letting us come there after hours. After that was such a huge success, we went back to (Northport) Superintendent Neil Wetherbee and asked if we could create a spinoff.”

Staley worked with 21 juniors and seniors who were divided into eight groups to research known shipwrecks between Northport Bay and the lighthouse, which is located at the tip of the Leelanau Peninsula. They also studied commercial fishing in the area and aspects of navigation.


ONE OF the photos taken of a manmade object at the bottom of Northport Bay. ONE OF the photos taken of a manmade object at the bottom of Northport Bay. Superintendent Wetherbee said Northport students benefited from the program.

”We are always looking for opportunities to work with community members,” said Wetherbee, who is the nephew of teacher Steve Wetherbee. “Stef came up with a solid plan, and we were in a position to jump on board.”

Added Staley, “All of that prep work led up to the Northport shipwreck expedition.”

Aboard the “Northwestern” at varying times for the four days following Memorial Day were three crew members from NMC, eight Northport students, teacher Steve Wetherbee, Staley and several community volunteers. They traveled at 3 mph using sidescan sonar connected to a tether to search out 200 feet on either side of the boat.


THE “FLORA” was a fish tug and carried passengers in Northport Bay before sinking in 1889. THE “FLORA” was a fish tug and carried passengers in Northport Bay before sinking in 1889. “We basically set a course and went back and forth to see what we could see. Most were old lumber piles. There use to be three main docks in Northport. Some of the pilings are still in place, and the cribs where the pilings are,” Staley said.

Among items observed and photographed are what appear to be several shipwrecks known to historians:

• A 50-foot fish tug and passenger vessel named the Flora, which sunk in 9 feet of water during a storm in 1889.

• A fish tug named the Eagle off Fourth Street that may have been sunk intentionally, which was common of outdated boats.

• A turn-of-the century recreational sailboat. “It’s definitely wooden, it’s old and it’s been there a long time,’ Staley said.

• And it’s possible that one of the “targets” was the small steamer Fanny Hazelton, which sunk off Northport Point in the 1880s while hauling telegraph poles from Ludington to Northport. “I’m not sure if that’s her. Right now we’re just trying to glean a bunch of information,” Staley said.

More input is being sought from residents who can recall local lore about ships that have sunk through history.

“We’re open to anyone who has any information on these wrecks,” Staley said.

Adult volunteers plan to head back out to Northport Bay aboard the Northwestern next Friday, June 23, with divers heading down to further explore the shipwrecks and other manmade materials.

They’ll be swimming in a bay of quagga mussels.

“The thing that has surprised me the most is how covered that bay is with mussels. There are some places that are completely covered, so they have invaded this bay,” Staley said.

She said there’s more work to be done.

“The end goal is to find all the boats from Northport Bay to the lighthouse. I have about five that are near the lighthouse that haven’t been found yet. I know what they are based on the research I’ve done, so it’s a matter of getting the boat out there with the right equipment and start searching,” she said.

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