Tag Archives: South Manitou Island

Shipwrecks and Lifesaving on the Manitou Passage

One of the consistent statements we hear from visitors to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is that Lake Michigan’s Manitou Passage looks like the Caribbean.  When the sun shines on these crystal clear waters, the deep blue and turquoise colors are breathtaking.

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Peaceful scenes such as the 1000 foot freighter American Spirit steaming past the North Manitou Shoal Lighthouse in the distance are common here in Leelanau County.  Looking at this, it’s difficult to imagine the fury the lake can unleash…often within a matter of minutes.  Many a mariner has been caught unaware in these waters, and their ships have been wrecked near these shores.

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This chart shows the ideal route that ships aim for as a dotted line.  By going this direction a vessel can shave 60 miles off of their trip between Mackinac and Chicago, as opposed to going west of the islands.  This archipelago can also act as protection from strong westerly winds.  During a fierce gale in 1913, the steamer Illinois found refuge in South Manitou Island’s crescent-shaped harbor by nosing into the beach and keeping the engines running forward for 50 continuous hours.  It was at that point that the wind subsided enough for a crewman to go ashore and secure the ship to a large tree, so they could power down the ship.

Back in late 1800’s and early 1900’s, there weren’t any decent roads in northern Michigan and the lakes were considered a highway.  It wasn’t unusual for 100 vessels to be in the Manitou Passage on a given day, as it was also a major fueling station.  Wood was the fuel of choice back then for steamships, and these shores had plenty of it.  All of that traffic, combined with the occasional storm, brought about many shipwrecks. Over 100 vessels were known to have run aground, with many of them being refloated and saved.

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Over 50 were left in place to be dismantled by the power of Lake Michigan’s waves.

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One such ship was the Walter L. Frost, which ran aground along South Manitou Island’s shore in 1903.  It wasn’t too many years until nothing remained above the lake’s surface.

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In 1960, the Liberian freighter Francisco Morazan grounded on South Manitou Island after losing power, running over the subsurface remains of the Frost (blue arrow) in the process.

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Today, the remains of the Morazan are a visible reminder of just how brutal this lake can be to a ship….

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…and a flyover will reveal many of the other wrecks in the passage.

We had an excellent example of the moodiness of Lake Michigan this past week.

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This is a photo of the 620 foot long Mississagi, heading south through the fog towards Muskegon on Thursday.

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On the ship’s return northward on Friday, it was met with 50 + MPH gusts coming from the northwest.  As a reference, this photo was taken on the east side of the Manitou Islands, so the ship was not experiencing the high waves that were occurring out in the open lake on the west side.

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But look what the captain did once he was past Leland and North Manitou Island.  With the full brunt of the gale hitting them broadside, he choose to turn the bow northwestward and head across the lake to calmer waters along the Upper Peninsula shore.  Once there, he turned northeastward and headed towards the Straits of Mackinac.  As he passed Mackinac Island, he witnessed the only shipping casualty of that day’s storm. The tug and barge Defiance/Ashtabula had run aground.  Once the gale subsided, that ship was able to be freed from the clay bottom with little damage.  The storm was strong enough to not only close the Mackinac Bridge to high profile vehicles but also the Soo Locks.  That rarely happens.

Nowadays, rescues are performed by the Coast Guard with helicopters and enclosed motor lifeboats.  Back when the Illinois sought shelter in South Manitou Harbor in 1913, the U.S. Life Saving Service (USLSS) had other equipment at their disposal.

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For the wrecks that were farther than 500 yards from shore, the USLSS would use an open surfboat to rescue stranded sailors.  The Sleeping Bear Point Life Saving Station performed 5% of their rescues in this manner.  But since most wrecks occurred along the shore, a beach apparatus was employed to bring the crew to safety.

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That consisted of several lines, a breeches buoy, and a cannon (called a Lyle Gun) to fire the initial line over the ship.  The breeches buoy was nothing more than a pair of pants (britches) attached to a life ring.  What this apparatus amounted to was similar to a modern day zip line.

Here at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, we perform a daily demonstration (summer months only) of the beach apparatus using young volunteers from the audience as surfmen.  This program is called Heroes of the Storm.

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Here is Captain Diana with her crew, Raggedy Ann and Andy, calling for help from her stranded ship.  A simulated Lyle Gun fires a projectile with a line out to the ship, which allows the captain to drag out the heavier rescue lines.

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Here is Captain Jim on another occasion sending Ann towards the shore in the breeches buoy.

A special treat occurs on Thursdays, right after the Heroes program.  That is the day an actual Lyle Gun is fired.  This cannon is the only gun invented by the U.S. Army to save lives instead of take them.

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An 18-pound projectile, similar to the one I am holding here, is loaded into the Lyle gun.  A 200-yard long shot line is tied to the end of it.  That is fired out into Sleeping Bear Bay each week.  Once the line is hauled back in, it is hung along the station’s picket fence to dry.  Once dried out, it is the park volunteer’s job to ‘fake’ the line into what is called the faking box.

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Here is Diana winding the rope around the faking box pegs.

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And here we are with 200 yards of faked rope.  There is a lid that is put over this afterwards. Once at the beach, the whole thing is turned over and the rope is slid off the pegs and into the lid.  Hopefully it doesn’t tangle when they fire the gun!  Let’s find out in this slo-mo video.  This took place the day we faked the rope:

Lyle Gun video: CLICK HERE

So there you have it.  That brought a smile to our faces!

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Until next time, safe and happy travels to all!

 

The Manitou Islands

Approxametely 15 miles west of Leland, the Manitou Islands rise from Lake Michigan. This archipelago is a vital part of Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore, yet very few visitors ever get there. A few weeks ago, Diana discovered a trip that the Leland Historical Society was taking to both North and South Manitou Islands on the same day. Ferry riders normally get to choose between one or the other, and the transit schedule North Manitou requires overnight tent camping. This once-a-year trip offered both islands! Seeing that we had never been to either one, we decided to join the tour. Joining us would be our friends Camilla, Lane and Patti. The trip was supposed to take place on Tuesday, August 23, but it was delayed two days because of strong southwesterly winds. As luck would have it, that put the trip on Thursday, August 25th…the 100th birthday of the National Park Service!

We arrived at Fishtown in the village of Leland, ready for adventure! For those who have never been to Leland, Fishtown is the historic dock where Lake Leelanau empties into Lake Michigan. Some of the old fish processing shanties have been turned into a collection of gift shops, while others still house fisheries.

Our vessel for this special trip was the 52 foot Manitou Isle. Built in 1946, she has seen a lot of use in her 70 years. The larger and newer ferry on the left is the one that is used daily.

On the way to the islands, we passed the North Manitou Shoal Light Station. This lighthouse was built in 1935 and was the last manned offshore light on the Great Lakes when it was automated in 1980. It sits in 26 feet of water and the focal plane of the light is 79 feet above the surface of the lake. The sea birds sure appreciate it! The lighthouse is currently up for auction, with a bid of $10,000 already posted online. If you are considering bidding on it, be warned that it is still active…including the fog horn. 🙂

As we approached our first stop, the South Manitou Light Station came into view. 

After years of visiting this region, we’ve finally made it to South Manitou Island! The smaller of the two isles, South Manitou is 8.2 square miles. There is a ranger station that houses a few seasonal workers, but no permanent residents. That’s not to say it was always that way though. The island has been home to lumbermen, farmers, lighthouse keepers, and lifesaving crews. 
 

This relief model of the island shows how the western side is dominated by dunes. Both North and South share this feature, as do the Fox islands to the north, as well as most of the shoreline of the mainland in Leelanau County. The model also shows the crescent-shaped harbor, which is the only natural deep water harbor between Buffalo, NY and Chicago. The football-shapes in the water are shipwrecks. The one on the right is the latest shipwreck, the Francisco Morazan…a 234 foot steamer which ran aground in a November gale in 1960. Most of the vessel is still visible above the waterline. Time constraints did not allow us to visit the wreck or the giant 500 year old cedar trees that stand west of it.

If you recall in my previous post, Port Oneida Fair, I spoke of a ship owner named Thomas Kelderhouse. On this day, we were honored to have our tour guide be his great-great-great granddaughter, Kim Kelderhouse! Here she is explaining the legend of the Sleeping Bear, which is how the dunes and the national lakeshore received their names. According to Native American folklore, a mother bear and her two cubs were driven into Lake Michigan by a great forest fire in Wisconsin. Knowing their only escape was to get to the other side, they swam day and night. The cubs lagged behind and drowned just off the Michigan shore, where their mother waited for them. The Great Spirit eventually covered the cubs with sand, creating the Manitou Islands. As the mother bear slept, he also blanketed her, creating the Sleeping Bear dunes. As Kim stated, it is indeed a sad tale.

After leaving the dock area, which is where the former lifesaving station stands, we split up into two groups. One group headed to the farm and cemetery, and our group headed with Kim to the lighthouse.

South Manitou Light Station was first established in 1840. The original tower was replaced in 1858 by the cream brick structure in the photo above, which had a lantern room on top. It was deemed that light was too short (64 feet), so the current tower was built in 1872, closer to the water. It has a focal plane of 104 feet above the lake surface.

Kim explained how the spiral staircase is only supported in the center. If it were attached to the sides, the tower would crumble as it shifted in the wind and the stairs pulled at the walls. I’ve been to many lighthouses over the years and never knew that fact. Learn something new every day!

The third order Fresnel lens is a replica. The light shines nightly from May through October.

Here’s the motley crew on the lighthouse gallery!

Kim took us into the keeper’s quarters, which is awaiting restoration. The windows were recently replaced, thereby stabilizing the building.

The lack of a ceiling upstairs allowed us to see this interesting twist in the chimney, which made it possible to exit the roof without disrupting the rafters.

From the lighthouse, we headed back to the boat and headed off to North Manitou Island.

Just a couple of kids out for a boat ride.  🙂

As was the case at our previous stop, North Manitou Island’s dock is near the lifesaving station.

The unique thing about this location is that it is the only remaining station to have buildings that were used from the beginning of the Lifesaving Service through the Coast Guard.  This boathouse is the only remaining example that used the original 1854 standardized plans, and it was built that same year.

The 1877 Lifesaving Station was a combination crew quarters and boathouse.  It was later converted to quarters and a storehouse by the Manitou Island Association, and then to a dormitory by the National Park Service.

As was the case on South Manitou, North started out in the lumbering business selling cordwood to passing steamers.  When the trees were exhausted, the Manitou Island Association formed, which farmed the land.  A large barn from the farming era still exists to the north of the village near the dock.

A unique feature on North Manitou is Cottage Row.  There are 10 parcels that were owned by successful Chicago business owners who vacationed  here in the summer months.  The cottages on these lots were built between 1893 and 1924.

This cottage, the Monte Carlo, was designed by a 26 year old Frank Lloyd Wright when he was employed at the Sullivan firm in Chicago.  It was built in 1894.

Also built that year was the Trude-Fiske cottage.  It remained in the family until 1979.

The Wing Cottage was also built in 1894 and was owned by several families over the years.  Note the fieldstone foundation.

The Riggs-Londergan Cottage was built in 1924.  The Manitou Island Association purchased it in 1958.

This is the Katie Shepard Hotel, which is currently being restored by Preserve Historic Sleeping Bear volunteers.  It was built in 1895.  Although plans aren’t firm, the thought is that visitors will be able to use it as an alternative to tent camping, similar to a hostel.

There are a few other cottages, including one that was ordered out of the Sears catalogue.  Diana found it interesting that, of all the places these wealthy city dwellers could have chosen to spend their summers, they decided on an island in northern Lake Michigan without electricity or running water.

From North Manitou, we headed back to the mainland to the dock at Fishtown.

Camilla took one of her famous selfies to document our safe return!  What a great day with friends!

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