Latest News From MSRA (latest news first)

2020 “Mysteries & Histories Beneath the Inland Seas” shipwreck show date set

By Craig Rich
January 2020

Mark your calendars for the “Mysteries & Histories Beneath the Inland Seas” shipwreck show. The annual show is scheduled for March 21, 2020 at the Knickerbocker Theater in Holland, Michigan. The lineup of outstanding speakers will be revealed soon! 

The annual festival is an evening showcasing the latest shipwreck discoveries on the Great Lakes by MSRA and others. 


A Ghost Ship Returns: But which one?

By Valerie van Heest
December 2018

It is an exciting moment in the life of anyone who loves history when we get a window to the past is opened. Mother Nature opened that window the first week of December 2018 when a lake gale calved off a giant section of a dune on the south side of the White Lake channel, just west of the White River Light Station Museum. Where there used to be a slope to the beach, now there is a precarious bluff. And below the bluff, once buried under some five to ten feet of sand, lay exposed a time capsule from the past. Even casual observers knew what they were seeing: the backbone and ribs of a ship, or rather the keelson and frames in maritime jargon. Some of them grabbed their cell phones, snapped pictures, and posted them on Facebook.


Craig Rich, co-director of the Michigan Shipwreck Research Association reposted those photos, and the story went viral. Some 30,000 pairs of eyes saw the shipwreck. Over the next week, many hundreds of people flocked to see the old wreck. And they did so without even the hope of finding a gold coin because everyone who lives near Lake Michigan knows that lake boats only carried such cargos as lumber, grain, coal, or stone, among other ordinarily raw materials.

This was not the first time that particular shipwreck had been seen. In 1974, Pete Caesar, the first curator of the museum in the recently decommissioned White River Light Station, spotted the same wreck. Apparently, Mother Nature had been hard at work back then too. He dug through the archives and found photos taken in 1942 when it had been visible. He recognized it immediately as the remains of a schooner and began trying to identify it. He eventually dubbed it L.C. Woodruff, a 170-foot long schooner sunk in 1878. Historic news accounts told a dramatic story of storm, disaster, rescue-gone-bad, death, and resurrection when some of the crew struggled out of the surf safe and sound. Back in the day, and particularly before the lighthouse was erected in 1875 at White Lake, more than a dozen schooners met their fate close to shore when storms made it difficult for those ships to maneuver. Shore is no friend to a sailor in bad weather.

With a new museum to run, Pete Caesar put out an appeal for support and funding to recover and display the wreck before Mother Nature could reclaim it. However, he was met with rejection. No one had the money or space to conserve and display such a large artifact. At that time, the Mystery Ship Seaport in Menominee Michigan was already feeling the pain in their wallets and seeing the degradation of the schooner Alvin Clark, an intact ship raised just a few years earlier from deep water in Green Bay.  Instead, Caesar managed to drag the stem of the vessel (the forward most timbers) up from the beach and mount it for museum visitors to see just outside the lighthouse. It still stands there today, though considerably decayed. Only oral history passed down to the current lighthouse museum curator, Matt Varnum, tells us it was recovered in the 1970s so we have to surmise it came from this wreck. Then five years later Caesar published his first of many books: L. C. Woodruff: Lake Michigan’s Ghost Ship Returns.

Now in 2018, with the news going viral, people began saying that the Ghost Ship Woodruff had returned once again.

However, we recalled that back in 2005 a beachcomber had come across the remains of a shipwreck in shallow water about a mile north of the White Lake Channel. The timbers were long and large. Wisconsin historian Brendon Baillod reviewed photographs of the wreck and suggested it was more likely the Woodruff than the wreck at the channel.

Craig Rich, who had written about the Woodruff in his book “Through Surf and Storm: Shipwrecks of Muskegon County”, looked into this further and noted that while all the historical accounts suggest that while the Woodruff spent some time anchored off the White River Channel during the storm back in November 1878, waves swept it north and it eventually grounded north of the channel.

Over the past twenty years since we founded the Michigan Shipwreck Research Association, our team has surveyed and identified more than two dozen shipwrecks along the West Michigan shore, not to mention another two dozen in deep water. It was time to dig out our shovels, tape measures, and slate boards and head up to the White River Light Station Museum to attempt to officially confirm or refute Caesar’s identification of the wreck.

I invited Eric Harmsen, an archaeologist who now manages the Port of Ludington Maritime Museum, to join me to document the remains. We arrived armed with historical accounts that Craig Rich and I had unearthed of six schooners, that all wrecked “at White Lake”. All six were built in the mid-19th century, so we could not expect differing construction styles would provide any clues to the wreck’s identity. One schooner was small, four schooners were medium-sized, and one schooner was large. Even before we headed down to the beach, we ruled out three of the mid-sized ships. The Telegraph, Alex Mitchel, and North Yuba had all wrecked at White Lake before 1866. But before 1866, the White Lake Channel was nearly three-quarters of a mile north of where the channel is today and that was considered the location of White Lake. In 1867, lumberman Charles Mears dredged out the new channel as a more direct and thus more cost-effective path, into Lake Michigan through which to ship his sawn lumber.

Therefore only three candidates remained: The small, 67-foot long Madison, the medium 124-foot long Contest, or the large 170-foot Woodruff, if Caesar knew something we didn’t. There are no historic photos of any of these ships.

Varnum, who works for the Sable Point Lighthouse Keepers Association, led us 500 feet west from the lighthouse to the wreckage. At the beach, we carefully negotiated our way down the dune that shifted under our every step. Mother Nature had been at work again, churning up the surf to give us a vision of what it must have been like the day the mystery schooner battled the elements and lost.

Then we came face to face with the past. The bow, obvious because the frames were shorter at one end, faced south, and we approached from the stern stepping gingerly over the structure. Waves crashed over the starboard frames. Walking along the port side, we came to the bow, where we could easily picture where the bow stem, now displayed on shore, had once been positioned. We got right down to the business of measuring the length, as that would provide the best opportunity to identify the wreck. From the bow to the last portion of the structure visible before the dune enveloped it, the keelson measured 66 feet plus about six feet to account for the missing stem. We used the shovel to burrow some distance into the dune and could clearly see that the keelson continued with no end in sight, so we ruled out the 67-foot Madison.

We inspected an interesting feature along the keelson. A slab of wood angled down through a slot in the keelson. It could only be the centerboard, still in position. While sailing, it helped stabilize the ship. Now, it locked the ship into the sand. From years of examining wrecks and ship drawings, we knew that a centerboard typically was located forward of the ship’s centerline. On this wreck, the centerboard box starts about 40 feet back from the bow, and the slot measures just over 20 feet. That put the center of the ship at about 60 feet. Double that and the wreck is some 120 feet long give or take. Due to degradation and sand covering, we cannot be precise. But we could rule out the 170-foot Woodruff once and for all, leaving the 126-foot Contest as the most logical conclusion.

There is little historical data about the Contest and no dramatic accounts of its final accident. Built at Buffalo, New York in 1855, it sailed on Lakes Erie, Huron, and Michigan, operating, according to records, in the grain trade, but it may have carried salt and lumber too. It had many owners and many masters. It suffered many minor accidents, was repaired and sailed again. In 1868, it disappeared in a snowstorm and was presumed lost, but later sailed into port. When S. Cobb of Chicago purchased it in 1876, it was considered unseaworthy. He must have repaired it because he used it until 1882 when it encountered that storm off White Lake. There is nothing to tell us whether it was loaded or sailing light that fateful day. A few newspaper accounts indicate that it “went ashore” at White Lake. One account indicates that it missed the channel and ran up on the beach. The crewmembers simply stepped off the ship onto dry land. They probably took shelter in the lighthouse, just seven years new at the time. The next day, under orders from the owner, the crew stripped it of its valuables, probably equipment, maybe masts, and cargo, if it had been carrying any at the time, and watched as the surf began breaking it up.

So now we wait until Mother Nature does her handy work and covers the wreck back up. Even while we were there, sections of the bluff hanging over the wreck had begun falling onto the timbers. But for another brief period of time, we have had a glimpse into the past, to the days when sailing ships dotted Lake Michigan and when sailors risked their lives on every delivery run.

Thank you to Craig Rich for collaborating on the research, Eric Harmsen for his expertise, Kevin Ailes for aerial photographs, and Brendon Baillod for his input.

2017 Shipwreck Show is March 25

Underwater video of some of the deepest dives on any Great Lakes shipwreck will highlight the 19th annual shipwreck show, “Mysteries & Histories Beneath the inland Seas” in Holland on March 25. The Holland-based Michigan Shipwreck Research Association sponsors the annual show as part of its mission to research and discover shipwrecks in the Great Lakes, then document and present to the public their findings.

John Janzen of Anoka, Minnesota will present the keynote presentation entitled, “Eight Years of Diving the Carl D. Bradley“. The Carl D. Bradley was a self-unloading Great Lakes freighter that sank in a Lake Michigan storm on November 18, 1958. Of the 35 crew members, 33 died in the sinking.

John Janzen and diving partner John Scoles, after obtaining the required permission from government agencies, conducted three dives to the Bradley in August 2007. They removed the original bell and replaced it with memorial bell of similar dimensions, engraved with the names of the lost crew. They were the first scuba divers to reach the stern of the Bradley. John also has worked as a diver and videographer for National Geographic and was featured in the recent Nat Geo Explorer episode “Ghost Ships of the Great Lakes.”

Also on the program is “Fire Wind and Storm” in which famed Great Lakes shipwreck hunter David Trotter presents his recent discovery and exploration of the shipwrecks of the Venus and the Montezuma.

The third program is “Shipwrecks, Reality TV and the Michigan Triangle“, presented by MSRA’s Valerie van Heest who will explore how reality television shows blur the lines between history and myth for the sake of ratings.

Tickets are $12.50 in advance and $15 at the door, or free with various membership levels at:

March 13, 2014

For Immediate Release


Finding a Missing Flight

As everyone waits for information about the missing Malaysia Airlines plane, so too did the people of West Michigan 64 years ago when a DC-4 disappeared over Lake Michigan.

Experts are now saying that it is practically unheard of for a plane to disappear without a trace like Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 did a week ago. But that is exactly what happened in June 1950 when Northwest Airlines Flight 2501 west missing over Lake Michigan, somewhere off Benton Harbor during a flight from New York to Minneapolis with 55 passengers and three crew.

The Navy and the Coast Guard as well as dozens of private planes and boats headed out into the fog-shrouded lake to search for debris and hopefully survivors. They focused the effort off Milwaukee, where two oil slicks had been found, presuming that marked the spot of the crash. But, like this week’s aviation mystery, no airplane debris was located and rumors of a bomb, a hijacking, or pilot misconduct were suspected. Families from around the country who had loved ones on the plane were distraught and wanted answers. Northwest flew many to Benton Harbor, putting them up in a hotel there to wait for answers. The answers were slow to come.

“My father was waiting at the airport in Minneapolis for his father’s plane to arrive, said Ken Skoug of Detroit. “All the Northwest counter agent told him was that the plane was late. He was told to go home and wait and we will let you know when it arrives.”

More than three days after the plane went missing, it would be a small fishing boat out of South Haven that would ultimately help searchers determine what happened. “My father Julius Allers, of the fishing tug Elsie J out of South Haven, hauled up the nets he had set three days earlier,” said Judy Allers Schlaak.  “He found pieces of flesh and a suitcase and suspected the plane had crashed on the east side of the lake.”

Hours later the Coast Guard found a massive debris field 12 to 17 miles off Benton Harbor. Clothing, suitcases, small pieces of the aluminum fuselage, human remains, and blankets stamped Northwest, confirmed that the plane had gone down off West Michigan. Everything was brought into the Coast Guard station at St. Joseph for authorities to analyze. Eventually, the human remains were buried in the Riverview Cemetery in St. Joseph. With the death of 58 people, the accident marked the worse aviation accident in this country at the time. But why did it happen?

Holland, Michigan author and explorer Valerie van Heest and her team have been trying to solve that mystery decades after the authorities gave up. She will present the full story of Northwest Airlines Flight 2501 at an event in Holland on March 22, timely considering the current wait for answers about the Malaysia flight.

While authorizes are still hunting for any evidence to determine what happened to the Malaysian flight and 239 people on board, the Coast Guard and the Navy gave up after just five days searching with sonar to locate the sunken wreckage. Black boxes were not in use in 1950 and the recovery of debris from waters as deep as 350 feet would have been difficult if not impossible in 1950.

Authorities felt that enough evidence had been recovered floating on the surface of the lake to confirm that the plane had crashed, but failed to determine a cause in the final accident report.

“Our team from the Michigan Shipwreck Research Association has been working with well-known author and explorer Clive Cussler since 2004 to search for the plane off Benton Harbor,” van Heest said. “While we have not yet found the wreckage, we have determined the reasons for the crash after interviews with dozens of senior citizens who either witnessed the accident or were involved in the investigation.”

The passage of time allowed those people to speak freely and van Heest has assembled their conclusions in her recently released book, Fatal Crossing.


MSRA Receives Ghost Ships Grant

(March 16, 2013 – Milwaukee, WI) — Holland, Michigan based Michigan Shipwreck Research Association is the 2013 recipient of the annual grant awarded by the Great Lakes Shipwreck Research Foundation of Milwaukee, Wisconsin for its work to discover, document and preserve shipwrecks in the Great Lakes.  

MSRA board members Valerie and Jack van Heest and Craig Rich received the award on Saturday, March 16, 2013 in Milwaukee at the annual Ghost Ships festival, the annual gathering of shipwreck historians, writers and practitioners.


MSRA Announces speaker line-up for 2013 Mysteries & Histories event

(February 14, 2013- Holland, MI) — Michigan Shipwreck Research Association has announced the speakers who will appear at the 15th annual “Mysteries & Histories Beneath the Inland Seas” event. This annual event raises funds for the group’s effort to research, discover, and document historic shipwrecks in the Great Lakes by providing an evening of discovery and entertainment for its members and the general public.

MSRA’s Jack van Heest will present: Farewell Keewatin, a touching homage to the S.S. Keewatin which recently was purchased and moved from its 45 year home in Saugatuck/Douglas to its new — and historic — home in Canada.

David Trotter, the most prolific shipwreck hunter in the Great Lakes presents Taking New York By Storm, the story of the loss and recent discovery of the Steamer New York in lake Huron.

MSRA’s Valerie van Heest presents Topless on the Beach: Exposed Shipwrecks at Grand Haven, a look at recently “exposed” shipwrecks around harbor Island in Grand Haven. Recent low water levels have revealed the remains of  several important vessels which served on the Great Lakes for decades, but which came to sad endings in the Grand River.

Ric Mixter, Michigan-based videographer, adventurer, and diver, will present a 100-year look back at The Great Storm of 1913, one of the most horrific events to hit the Great Lakes. More than 250 sailors on twelve vessels lost their lives in this “storm of the century,” and some of the vessels lost one hundred years ago remain missing today!

MSRA’s Craig Rich presents Through Surf and Storm: Shipwrecks of Muskegon County Michigan, based on his recent book of the same name. Craig will feature the stories of six losses to illustrate obver 100 shipwreck tales in his latest book.

The 2013 show will be held at the historic Knickerbocker Theatre in downtown Holland, Michigan at 7:00 pm on Saturday, April 20, 2013.  Tickets are available at:

Michigan Shipwreck Research Association is a Holland, Michigan-based, 501(c)3  non-profit organization whose mission is to preserve and interpret Michigan’s Maritime History.


Historic Steamer Aurora Identified

(December 13, 2012) Low lake levels in the fall of 2012 resulted in the exposure of at least five shipwreck hulks along the edges of Harbor Island in Grand Haven, Michigan. Michigan Shipwreck Research Associates was called in to survey and identify the vessels, in particular, the largest located just east of the public launch ramp on the island first spotted by area residents Bill and Shirley Martinus.

On Friday December 7, 2012, MSRA board directors Valerie Van Heest and Craig Rich, teamed up with Kenneth Pott, a maritime archaeologist and director of the Tri-Cities historical  Museum in Grand Haven to survey the larger wreck.

Study of the hull construction, exposed propeller shaft cradle at the stern and exposed sides of the vessel led them to initially conclude that the vessel was a large steamer 40 feet wide and at least 165 feet in length, though an additional amount forward toward the bow end appeared buried.

Van Heest, Rich, and Pott worked with historian William Lafferty, of Lafferty van Heest and Associates, who narrowed it down to two possibilities: the 185-foot L. L. Barth abandoned at Grand Haven in 1927 or a significantly larger vessel, the 290-foot Aurora, burned in 1932.

A survey east of the visible portions of the wreck conducted by Valerie and Jack Van Heest, Craig Rich and Larry Hatcher of MSRA on Sunday December 12, revealed a structure well over 200 feet long, and led the team to conclude that the vessel is the Aurora.

“The Aurora was a very significant ship when built in 1887,” Van Heest indicated, “and it’s thrilling to be able to study its remains now.”

When launched by the Murphy and Miller of Cleveland on August 23, 1887, the 290-foot, steam-driven propeller was the largest and most powerfully built wooden vessel on the Great Lakes. The 3000-ton vessel was initially owned by John Corrigan of the Aurora Mining Company of Milwaukee which paid $150,000 for its construction. It was used to ship iron ore from the Gogebic Range Ironwood, Michigan, to Cleveland and coal from Cleveland on the return trip.

“Not only did the length lead to our likely identification of the vessel, but the visible portions of the hull framing supported that notion as well.” Kenneth Pott indicated.

According to records detailing its build, the Aurora was constructed with Kentucky Oak. Frames were spaced on 21” centers 18 inches wide. Iron straps 5” wide by ¼” thick were hot riveted into the hull and bent around the turn of the bilge. The firm Bassett & Presley, of Cleveland, supplied the iron.

At the time of the Aurora’s build, ironed-hull ships were still in their infancy. The technology of using iron straps allowed the builders to fabricate this immense ship with wood.

“It is fascinating to be able to see this unique construction methodology in the flesh so to speak,” Rich noted.

Frame sizes and remaining iron strapping on the wreck are consistent with this information, forming, along with the dimensions, a nearly positive conclusion as to the identity.

On December 12, 1898, the Aurora burned to the water line at Bois Blanc in Detroit River where it had been fast in ice for several days. The owners chose to rebuild the 11 year old vessel into a barge to be towed, spending

$50,000 in the rebuild. In that capacity, the barge changed hands several times, eventually, coming under the ownership of the Morton Salt Company in 1916. The company laid up the vessel upon the downturn in the economy in

1927 and it was towed to Grand Haven and eventually burned in 1932, its remains left in shallow water on the north side of Harbor Island to rot, an inglorious ending to a long and significant career.

Erosion of the Grand River since 1932 is evident with the discovery. “After the fire, river sediments built up over the forward half of the vessel, eventually several trees and marsh shrubs sprouted over the wreck and the river course shifted.” Van Heest pointed out. “The current environmental changes revealed the portion that had only been covered with water.”

Coincident to this discovery, the Aurora is included in Van Heest’s latest book, Lost & Found: Legendary Shipwrecks of Great Lakes for its role in November 1898 towing the David Dows, the largest schooner on the Great Lakes, on what would be the Dows last voyage. The Aurora was forced, because of a storm, to abandon the Dows. It sank a few hours later.



MSRA Announces date for 2013 Mysteries & Histories event

(December 23, 2012)Michigan Shipwreck Research Association, the Holland, Michigan-based non-profit organization whose mission it is to preserve and interpret Michigan’s Maritime History, has announced the dat for its annual “Mysteries & Histories Beneath the Inland Seas” event.

The 2013 show will be held at the historic Knickerbocker Theatre in downtown Holland, Michigan at 7:00 pm on Saturday, April 20, 2013.

The group will announce special guest speakers and presentation topics at a later date.



Historic Shipwreck Found by MSRA in Deep Water off West Michigan

(April 5, 2012 Holland, MI) –The non-profit Michigan Shipwreck Research Association (MSRA) has discovered another shipwreck lost off the shores of West Michigan.

MSRA directors, Jack and Valerie van Heest and Craig Rich, discovered the wreck of a schooner while working with side scan operator David Trotter last summer. It rests in utter blackness 350 feet beneath the surface of Lake Michigan about twenty miles off the coast of Grand Haven. It is a remnant of the Age of Sail on the Great Lakes when schooners provided the primary means of transportation. Some 2,000 shipwrecks went down in deep water in Lake Michigan; hundreds more were driven into shallow water where they ended their days pounded to pieces by the surf.

This shipwreck ranks as the deepest schooner yet found in Lake Michigan. MSRA divers waited until a calm day in October to make the dangerous dive because the water is warmest that time of year. They could only spend 15 minutes on the bottom but had to spend two hours decompressing, a process that rids the body of compressed nitrogen that could cause the bends.

The diver’s video revealed an intact two-masted schooner about ninety feet long. A substance below deck may represent the cargo, possibly grain. The vessel has a unique scroll bow seen only on schooners built in the early to mid-19th century, making this a very old schooner.

“In trying to identify the wreck, I researched a number of schooners lost off West Michigan, Valerie van Heest, author of several shipwrecks books and a museum exhibit designer, said. “Most went down carrying lumber, a buoyant cargo that normally ripped through the decks of wooded vessels when they sank.”

Van Heest found only one lost ship that corresponded to the features and cargo of this wreck: the St. Peter, a schooner thought to have gone down in Lake Michigan closer to Wisconsin than Michigan. Built in 1868, the St. Peter, named for the Patron Saint of Sailors, was lost in 1874 on route from Chicago to Buffalo, New York, while carrying a load of wheat. The patron saint may well have been looking out for the crew because every man survived and later reported that they abandoned the sinking ship about 35 miles off Milwaukee.

“If this is the wreck of the St. Peter, then it drifted east for some time, coming to rest on the opposite side of Lake Michigan, significantly father east than the crew reported,” Craig Rich, author of two local shipwreck books, noted.

An official document that survived more than a century, indicates the St. Peter had a scroll bow, like found on the wreck.

The van Heests and Rich have located fourteen wrecks while working in partnership with David Trotter and nationally acclaimed author Clive Cussler and his NUMA team, including Ralph Wilbanks and Steve Howard. The trio has been able to easily identify some of the wrecks based on unique features. They immediately identified the Hennepin, a wreck that the team found off South Haven in 2006, when they saw the conveyor belt and A-frame that matched historic photos of the vessel. They knew they had found the Michigan in deep water off Holland when they saw the ship’s name engraved on the cover of a piece of machinery.

Others shipwrecks, like this newly discovered schooner, don’t leave such obvious clues. Many schooners looked alike. Paint on name boards rarely survives decades underwater. “It requires significant research to be able to identify the wreck, and then the conclusion is tentative,” Rich said.

“We would like to retrieve a sample of the cargo to have it chemically analyzed,” Van Heest indicated. “If it proves to be wheat, we can be more certain it is the St. Peter.”