Diving into Great Lakes shipwreck history

Aug 19, 2013

The cover of "Lost on the Lady Elgin" by Valerie van Heest
Credit Valerie van Heest

The bottom of the Great Lakes is like an open history book to diver and shipwreck explorer Valerie van Heest of Holland, Michigan. She’ll talk about her explorations during a presentation sponsored by the Vicksburg Historical Society. It starts Tuesday, August 20th, at 7 p.m. in the Vicksburg Community Center at the corner of Main and Prairie.

Van Heest says she first became interested in the world underwater because of her father’s experiences as a U.S. Navy diver during World War Two. She says in the Great Lakes, unlike the in ocean, shipwrecks are the main attraction. That’s because there aren’t a lot of colorful fish and coral reefs to look at. When she began diving in the Great Lakes, van Heest says she saw many wrecks but didn’t realize the history behind them, at least at first. As she looked deeper into that history she says many fascinating stories came to light.

Valerie van Heest
Credit Valerie van Heest

Van Heest is hard pressed to name her favorite Great Lakes shipwreck. She says all are special in some way. But van Heest has a soft spot in her heart for a famous and tragic wreck on Lake Michigan that happened in 1860. When the paddlewheel steamer Lady Elgin sank off Milwaukee after colliding with another vessel it became one of the worst Great Lakes maritime disaster ever in terms of lives lost. Exact figures aren’t available but it is estimated that at least 300 people died, many of them Irish immigrants from Milwaukee. Van Heest says the Lady Elgin broke up rapidly, scattering lots of small pieces on the lake bottom. She says divers today can still see some of the Civil War-era rifles the ship was carrying as cargo. Van Heest has written several books about Great Lakes wrecks, including Lost on the Lady Elgin.

She and famed novelist and explorer Clive Cussler also became involved in the search for answers to the mystery of a famous airline disaster. In 1950, Northwest Flight 2501 disappeared in a severe storm over Lake Michigan during a flight from New York to Seattle. No trace of the four-engine Douglas DC-4 or its 58 passengers and crew were ever found. It was the worst civil aviation disaster in the U.S. up to that time. Van Heest says her decade-long search with Cussler hasn’t found the plane’s wreckage but she says other research done by the team may have solved the mystery. What is the answer? Van Heest says you’ll find it in her recent book Fatal Crossing about Flight 2501.