I'm Steve Ember.
And I'm Barbara Klein with
EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English.
This week, we tell about the biggest system of
freshwater lakes in the world, the Great Lakes between the United States and
Canada. They are busy shipping
paths. They are also known for fierce
and deadly storms. Today, we tell about the
lakes and some famous shipwrecks.
before European explorers first saw the Great Lakes, they provided Native
Americans with a way to transport goods. Probably the first European to see and explore the Great Lakes was
Frenchman Etienne Brule in the early sixteen hundreds. He lived among the Huron Indians. All but one of the Great Lakes has a name from
Native American languages: Michigan, Huron, Erie and Ontario. The biggest lake, Superior, was named by the
French. But the Ojibwe Indians knew it
as Gitchigumi, or "big water."
Great Lakes are part of a waterway that extends from the Atlantic Ocean to the
center of North America. Ships can enter
the Saint Lawrence River on the east coast of Canada and travel to Chicago,
Illinois or Duluth, Minnesota.
on the Great Lakes are not called ships, but boats. However, boats on the lakes can be huge. The newest of the lake freighters is over
three hundred meters long.
Griffin was the one of the first sailing vessel on the Great Lakes and also among
the first shipwrecks. French explorer and
trader Rene-Robert Cavelier De La Salle, built it in sixteen seventy-nine. The boat set sail from an island in northern
Lake Michigan. La Salle reached what is now Green Bay, Wisconsin. He sent the boat back home with a load of
animal fur. No one ever saw the Griffin again.
The loss of the Griffin established a long tradition of danger and mystery
linked to Great Lakes travel.
the lakes increased. Soon, settlers came
to the area. They grew crops and
harvested wood, sending products to markets by boat. Then, expanding communities needed coal which
was also shipped.
In the eighteen forties, iron ore was discovered in the
Marquette Mountains in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Iron ore, the main raw material of steel, changed
the lakes area and the nation.
In eighteen fifty-five, the first canal connecting Lake
Superior with Lake Huron was completed at Sault Ste. Marie,
Michigan. The Soo Locks linked iron
mines near Lake Superior with the cities of Detroit, Michigan; Cleveland, Ohio
and Chicago, Illinois. Today, the Soo Locks are the world's busiest.
Passenger travel also grew on the
Great Lakes. Big steamboats carried
hundreds of people between cities. But the
threat of fire came with the new steam technology. The worst fire disaster happened on Lake Erie
in eighteen fifty.
The G.P. Griffith was traveling
from Buffalo, New York to Chicago with about three hundred men, women and
children. Many were immigrants from
England, Ireland and Germany.
Not far east of Cleveland, a fire broke out. As the flames spread, passengers and crew
panicked. More than a hundred people
jumped into the lake and drowned. Others
burned. Only a few strong swimmers
survived. But not a single child and
only one woman was saved.
thousands of boats on the lakes, collisions became a real danger. The deadliest took place in eighteen sixty in
southern Lake Michigan. The steamer Lady
Elgin was carrying passengers from Milwaukee, Wisconsin to Chicago to hear a
speech by Democratic presidential candidate Stephen Douglas. As many as five to six hundred people were on
board, many of Irish ancestry.
A storm blew up on the
return trip to Milwaukee. The Augusta, a
boat carrying wood, was sailing south at high speed. It struck the Lady Elgin. But the Augusta's Captain D.M. Malott continued
on to Chicago, failing to help victims on the passenger boat.
Wilson struggled to save the Lady Elgin. But the boat soon sank. Hundreds of
passengers struggled to hold on to the floating wreckage. Powerful waves crashing against a rocky coast
drowned many people. The captain fought
to save as many people as he could until he too was lost.
University student Edward Spencer was another hero. He swam from shore and rescued seventeen
people. The wreck of the Lady Elgin
remains the worst loss of life on open water in the Great Lakes. Recent studies say four hundred or more
people died that night.
the nation's need for steel grew, bigger ships were built to carry iron
ore. They sailed on the lakes until late
November. Shipping in the upper Great
Lakes mostly stops in late fall because of ice. But November storms can be deadly.
The worst weather disaster on the lakes happened in
nineteen thirteen. The early November
winds reached hurricane force and caused waves eleven meters high. By the time the storm eased, eight big boats
were lost on Lake Huron alone. They
included the Canadian freighter James Carruthers which disappeared with
twenty-two men. Its wreck has never been
found. The storm, sometimes called the
"Big Blow," killed more than two hundred fifty people.
Some of the biggest boats to ever sail the lakes have
been lost in sudden November storms. In
nineteen fifty-eight, the Carl D. Bradley was heading home at the end of the
shipping season. It first launched
thirty years before. At the time, it was
the biggest boat on the Lakes. But
during a storm on Lake Michigan, the Bradley split in two. Only two of its crew of thirty-five survived.
Edmund Fitzgerald was launched the same year the Bradley sank. The Fitzgerald
was two hundred twenty meters long. It
was the biggest boat on the lakes when it entered service. It would become the most famous shipwreck of
folksinger Gordon Lightfoot told the story of the tragedy in "The Wreck of the
On November tenth, nineteen seventy-five, the Fitzgerald
was sailing on Lake Superior. It was struggling through a dangerous storm that the
old sailors called a "November witch." It
had lost its radar and the old lighthouse at Whitefish Point, Michigan was not operating.
Captain Ernest McSorley radioed another freighter, the
Arthur Anderson, that his boat was taking on water. He was making for the safety of Whitefish
Bay. But that night the weather got
worse. The Anderson reported winds of
about one hundred forty kilometers an hour and waves ten meters high.
Captain McSorley told the Anderson: "We
are holding our own." But that was the
last anyone heard from the Edmund Fitzgerald. The boat and twenty-nine men disappeared into Lake Superior minutes
Tom Farnquist is executive director of
the Great Lakes Historical Shipwreck Society. In nineteen ninety-five, he was part of an effort to recover the Fitzgerald's
bell. The bronze bell is now preserved
at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point, Michigan. Each year on November tenth, a ceremony is
held there to remember the crew members of the Fitzgerald.
knows as much about shipwrecks on the Great Lakes as anyone.
TOM FARNQUIST: "The lakes are very treacherous. There's
over six thousand and some estimate as high as anywhere to ten to twelve
thousand shipwrecks on the Great Lakes."
Today, thousands of people dive
at shipwreck preserves all around the Great Lakes. The Great Lakes Historical Shipwreck Society works
to preserve and explain the history and importance of the area's wrecks. The
group was established in nineteen seventy-eight. It has grown to over one thousand seven
Each year, tens of thousands of
people visit the shipwreck museum at Whitefish Point. Great Lakes shipwrecks continue to capture
the imagination of Americans from all over the country.
Tom Farnquist says shipwrecks are
exciting because they preserve a detailed picture of maritime life that can be
hundreds of years old. He says Lake
Superior may be one of the most interesting places for this kind of
TOM FARNQUIST: "It's quite a cross-section of American
maritime history frozen in time on the Great Lakes. There's probably the best selection of
shipwrecks anywhere in the world waiting to be found in Lake Superior."
program was written and produced by Mario Ritter. I'm Steve Ember.
And I'm Barbara Klein. Transcripts, MP3s and podcasts of our
programs are at voaspecialenglish.com. You can also find a link to the Great
Lakes Shipwreck Museum. Join us again next week for Explorations in VOA Special