Shipwrecks: A Unique and Undervalued Resource
Halsey, John R., Michigan History Magazine
For millennia, native people of the Great Lakes region paddled log dugouts and birch-bark canoes through lakes and rivers. Not all of them made it safely to their destinations. In 1679 the first European sailing vessel on the Great Lakes, La Salle's Griffin, was also the first ship lost during the historic period. Thousands of sail-, steam- and gas-powered vessels have followed them to the bottom. Limited ship salvage began as early as the mid-nineteenth century, but most wrecks remained untouched until after World War II. The invention of the self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (scuba) opened up the lakes to those willing to brave the cold and dark water. The Great Lakes, with relatively little plant and animal life, offer divers almost perfectly preserved shipwrecks.
Postwar salvagers, or "wreckers" as they called themselves, saw little value in the wrecks as cultural resources. Rather, the wrecks were simply a resource to be exploited--interesting souvenirs, exhibit pieces for museums, props for nautical-theme restaurants, wood for making furniture or anchors for putting in front of the local chamber of commerce. At first there was little interest in determining who actually owned the wrecks. Eventually officials in the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) began to treat shipwrecks on the state-owned bottomlands as a public trust and implemented a salvage permit system. This permit system brought the State of Michigan into direct regular contact with the people who exploited the wrecks and knew the most about them--their locations, conditions and often their names. Knowing a shipwreck's name can lead to establishing the vessel's history and the value of its artifacts. Permitted salvage represented only a small fraction of what was being removed from known wrecks.
By the middle of the 1970s, it was apparent to divers who were not interested in salvage that wrecks were being stripped of artifacts and equipment at an alarming rate. Concerned divers approached the DNR and the Michigan Department of State (DOS), which had become a significant player in historic preservation, to develop legislation to protect the wrecks.
The purpose of the proposed legislation was to clear up confusion and misconceptions over who owns the abandoned shipwrecks on Great Lakes bottomlands. Just what constitutes legal abandonment has yet to be adequately defined. The bottoms of inland lakes and rivers are not subject to the same legal and administrative controls as those on the Great Lakes (except where the state owns such property).
Michigan received title to its share of the submerged lands of the Great Lakes as a part of the Northwest Territory and upon admission to the Union on January 26, 1837. Michigan claims ownership of 38,504 square miles of bottomlands in Lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron, St. Clair, and Erie. Michigan's combined bottomland area is larger than the individual land area of thirteen states. Almost 40 percent of Michigan's combined land and bottomland area is under water. When the state's actual political boundaries are seen the resulting shape is a Michigan few would recognize.
Many meetings and the widespread support of the sport-diving community resulted in Governor William Milliken signing into law Public Act 184 of 1980. This law gave DNR and DOS responsibility and authority in Great Lakes bottomland shipwreck management unparalleled by any other Great Lakes state. Principal among these changes was a detailed plan for a revised salvage permit program and a mandate to establish up to 5 percent of the Great Lakes bottomlands as preserves. The preserves have proved to be a popular innovation with divers and local business benefitting from the presence of attractive shipwreck dives. There are now nine preserves, and two more are in the process of being approved.
By 1988 various inadequacies were identified in Public Act 184. …