Lake Superior Shipwrecks and Storms
Sailing the seas has long been one of the world’s riskiest and most dangerous professions. Years ago, shore dwellers knew that when a loved one went off to sea, they often didn’t return. While the oceans, naturally, pose the biggest threat, Lake Superior is so vast it has claimed many ships into her cool depths. With weather that can change at the drop of a hat, Lake Superior has claimed hundreds of ships for her own.
Modern technology has made sailing and shipping on Lake Superior much safer, but she is still a mighty force to be reckoned with when the Gales of November rush through. Over the years, Lake Superior shipwrecks have dwindled, but there are a few notable wrecks near Cook County.
The Wreck of SS Emperor
On June 4, 1947, the iron ore carrier Emperor saw its last sunrise. When the 525-foot, 4,641-ton steamer rounded the northwest end of Isle Royale, it had near zero visibility. An overtired first mate caused her to run aground and crash into Canoe Rocks with such terrific impact that she split and sunk within 30 minutes. Twenty-one sailors were rescued by the Coast Guard that June day, but even with the quick response, 12 men tragically drowned when the Emperor sank.
The Wreck of the SS Henry Steinbrenner
On May 11, 1953, Lake Superior claimed 17 lives when the 427-foot Henry Steinbrenner went down. The iron ore carrier left Superior, Wisconsin on Sunday, May 10 under sunny 78 degree skies, but by the evening, the Steinbrenner was sailing through gale force winds upwards of 72 miles per hour, and 19-foot waves were pouring a dangerous amount of water into the hold. Throughout the night, the temperatures dropped dramatically, turning rain into driving snow and blinding the heavily-laden Steinbrenner. By morning, its fate was sealed and an abandon ship signal was blown by around 7:30am. Nearby ships were able to save 14 men, but 17 died, including the captain and first mate.
The Sinking of the SS America
The SS America served as a communication and transport ship for the North Shore prior to Highway 61. On June 7, 1928 America arrived in Washington Harbor off the shore of Isle Royale and swiftly ran aground. Although the captain attempted to beach her, she hit a second reef and remains there to this day. All aboard were safely rescued, including the captain’s dog. The wreckage can be seen today, as her hull lies only two feet below the surface of Superior--a haunting and unforgettable experience, one no visitor to Isle Royale will soon forget.
Lake Superior Shipwreck Pop Quiz (answers published below)
- How many known shipwrecks has Lake Superior claimed?
- What was the largest ship to be wrecked on Lake Superior?
- Which Lake Superior shipwreck claimed the most lives?
- When was the most recent shipwreck?
- Who sang the 1976 pop hit "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald?"
Lake Superior Storms
The Minnesota Sea Grant has conducted extensive research into why, exactly, so many epic storms develop around Lake Superior. It all has to do with climate, and what is going on in the air above the big lake. The experts explain that “collisions between belts of low and high pressure from the Gulf of Mexico and Canada generate the region's wildest storms and blizzards.”
Every year, Lake Superior sees about 30 inches of precipitation, most of which falls May through October. Over the years, we’ve had some truly incredible storms pass through the region, wreaking havoc, sinking ships and making the news.
During November, the winds really start to pick up. This is caused by low-pressure systems passing over the lake, bringing on the Gales of November. During this time, wind speeds can easily reach 50 miles per hour, and gusts can exceed 100. In Cook County, this natural phenomenon is a cause to celebrate. Don’t miss this year’s Lake Superior Storm Festival. Events include shipwreck stories, storm trivia, the annual Lake Superior wave dash and more.
For all the storm fest details, visit our Lake Superior Storm Festival events page.
Lake Superior Facts & Info
By now, you’ve probably got Lake Superior on the mind. Don’t worry – it happens to all of us! The big lake holds stories, secrets and mysteries that are begging to be uncovered.
For all things Lake Superior, check out our free Lake Superior Facts & Info Guide. Discover all you ever wanted to know about our great lake – and more!
- Over 350 known shipwrecks
- The Edmund Fitzgerald, 729 Feet
- The Edmund Fitzgerald, all 29 crew members were lost
- On December 4, 1989, the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Mesquite wrecked off Keweenaw Point, Michigan
- Gordon Lightfoot