Shipwreck Stories

Even before I became a certified scuba diver I was interested in Great Lakes maritime history and the stories behind shipwrecks. I remember getting “Great Lakes Shipwrecks and Survivals” by William Rattigan for Christmas when I was around 12 years old. I was fascinated. After that I read all the books about Great Lakes ships and shipwrecks I could find. Even today, I find the stories of the wrecks I dive as compelling, if not more so, than the actual wreck. So I thought from time to time I would share some of the stories I’ve learned over the years.

The first story I’d like to share with you is the tale of the Daniel J. Morrell. The Morrell is a classic style Great Lakes steel freighter. She was just about 600′ long, with the pilothouse forward, engine room and galley aft, and the long spar deck in between. She was built in 1906 in Bay City, Michigan.

By 1966, the Morrell was 60 years old, not exactly a spring chicken. During what was supposed to be her last trip in November, the crew learned that she had to make one more run. Due to mechanical problems with another ship, the Morrell would have to sail from Buffalo, New York at the east end of Lake Erie all the way up to Taconite Harbor, Minnesota on Lake Superior’s western shore. She would sail north in ballast (no cargo) to pick up a load of iron ore to bring back south. The trip across Lake Erie and up through Detroit was uneventful. She sailed up the St Clair River and out into Lake Huron.

The weather had been deteriorating steadily. Out on the lake, the Morrell battled winds up to 70 mph and 25 foot waves swept the ship. Around 2 in the morning, the crew heard several loud bangs. The lights in the bow immediately went dark. The general alarm bell sounded and crew gathered on deck. On the bow, survivor Dennis Hale describes coming out on deck and seeing only the top of the smokestack aft. The ship had buckled in the middle and the arching deck obstructed his view of everything but the top of the stack. The ship was breaking in half. The crew on the bow gathered around a life raft that was carried on the spar deck between hatches two and three. The men waited for whatever would happen next. The steel deck plating began tearing amid a shower of sparks and the sound of rending steel. I can’t imagine that horrific sound. It boggles my mind to think that this huge, steel ship was being ripped apart by water.

Meanwhile, the stern was still under power and fully lit. The still-moving stern basically pushed the bow out of its way and kept going! The men on the bow were thrown into the water. Some were able to find the raft and climb aboard. Dennis Hale was one. Because cables carrying power to the bow were severed as soon as she started to break up, no distress call was made. The radio had no battery power and there was no radio in the stern, where they did have power. No one knew anything had happened to the Morrell until she failed to show up at Taconite Harbor. The men on the raft drifted for hours. One by one, they passed away. All but Dennis Hale. He survived almost 40 hours adrift on the raft on Lake Huron until Coast Guard helicopters spotted him and picked him up. Dennis has written a book, Shipwrecked: Reflections of the Sole Survivor: an autobiography and is a regular speaker at dive shows all around the Great Lakes. He’s an interesting guy with an amazing story to tell. Look him up and spend a few minutes talking with him if you can. It’s not often we get to talk to shipwreck survivors.

The wreckage was located and surveyed, the Coast Guard investigated and issued a report and life went on much as before on the Great Lakes. It was well known that steel made before 1948 did not handle low temperatures well. Basically the steel got brittle when cold. The Coast Guard concluded that there were probably some sort of existing cracks in the steel, perhaps small cracks radiating from rivet holes in beams. The cold temperature and unbelievable amount of stress placed on the ship by the storm, combined with existing cracks caused the steel to fail and the ship to break in half.

The wreckage of the Daniel J. Morrell rests on the bottom of Lake Huron off the tip of Michigan’s “thumb.” She is rarely visited by divers due to her distance from shore. Weather conditions need to be very good to make the long trip out to to the wreck sites. The bow section is roughly five miles from the stern section. The bow is a little shallower than the stern at about 150′ to the deck, 180′ to the bottom. The stern is about 180′ deep to the deck and 220′ to the lake bottom. Both sections are sitting upright. The bow section features the forward mast with a large letter “C”, the logo of the Cambria Steamship Company. Divers can explore the wheelhouse, see the anchors and look at the forward cabins. Unfortunately, most of the artifacts from the bow have been removed over the years.

The stern section is, in my opinion, far more interesting than the bow. As you descend the mooring line to the wreck, the first thing you see is the smokestack still standing. There’s a huge auxiliary helm, a big double wheel, just aft of the smokestack. Dropping over the stern, you can see the propellor and rudder. The unused lifeboats are there on the bottom as well. It was probably impossible to launch the boats, given the ferocity of the storm. You can swim around the aft cabin structure and peek into open doors of the galley and crew quarters. Some penetration is possible if you have the proper training, equipment and experience. Even then, wreck penetration at this depth is dangerous and not recommended.

The Morrell is a deep, potentially risky dive. It is also logistically difficult to pull off. Many is the time that I’ve been up in that area to dive other wrecks and we hit a rare, perfect weather day. A perfect day to dive the Morrell, but we don’t have the right breathing gas or the right team members. Equally frustrating are the days we go up to Harbor Beach, MI with hopes of diving the Morrell, only to find the weather uncooperative.

As interesting as the wreck is though, the story of how she ended up on the bottom of Lake Huron is even more fascinating to me. It’s a terribly sad story, yet joyful because Dennis Hale was able to survive. It’s a tale of irony because had the other ship not broken down, the Morrell never would have sailed on this trip. When I visit the Morrell, I feel a sense of reverence and sadness. As I ascend and watch the wreck, sitting upright and intact, fade into the haze, I think that’s a pretty fitting monument to the 28 men who lost their lives on November 29, 1966.