Recovering Mysteries of the Great Lakes

Hometown Heroes, On the Road, People
on November 12, 2000

In the 1970s, Tom Farnquist was so obsessed with shipwrecks that he would come home from his job as a junior high science teacher, don his wet suit, venture out in a boat by himself, and dive until dark.

It wasn’t the safest way to explore Lake Superior, Farnquist admits, but he doesn’t regret the risks he took because he made some incredible discoveries.

For Farnquist, executive director of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society, the allure of the lakes has been strong since he was a child. “I’ve always had a fascination for the water and diving,” says the Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., native. “My parents would rent a cabin on Whitefish Bay every summer, and I literally lived in the water and was fascinated with what was below it.”

In 1992, Farnquist left teaching to take over the society directorship and open a shipwreck museum at Whitefish Point, Mich. Today, he lives in his hometown of Sault Ste. Marie, where he heads the 1,500-member society and serves as administrator of the museum.

Housed in a one-story building adjacent to a restored 1861 lighthouse and crew’s quarters building, the museum draws 90,000 visitors a year and raises enough revenue to support the society’s $2 million annual budget.

The museum houses artifacts from 13 shipwrecks, artwork describing events that occurred before the ships disappeared, and historic exhibits of the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Lifesaving Service. The state of Michigan has prohibited the removal of shipwreck artifacts since 1980, but the museum’s collection was acquired before then, or by special permit.

Farnquist, 56, says he always intended to open a museum to preserve the artifacts that he and other divers recovered, to pay tribute to the shipping industry and remember those who lost their lives on the Great Lakes. His latest endeavor will go a long way toward accomplishing the latter.

Farnquist is spearheading an effort to raise $3 million to expand the museum and build a memorial honoring the 30,000 mariners who have died on some 6,000 Great Lakes vessels. At the center of the memorial will be the bell from the Edmund Fitzgerald, recovered in 1995 from 535 feet of water 17 miles off Whitefish Point.

For families of the 29 men who perished aboard the iron ore freighter on Nov. 10, 1975, the memorial is a welcome tribute.

“The memorial will provide a sense of closure,” says Ruth Hudson, whose only child, Bruce, died aboard the Edmund Fitzgerald at age 22. “I hope it helps educate people about what happens on the Great Lakes,” says Hudson, of North Olmstead, Ohio. “It will add a great deal of satisfaction to know there’s a memorial.”

The Edmund Fitzgerald has become an icon for all Great Lakes shipwrecks. From his five submarine visits to the wreckage, Farnquist theorizes that the ship either suffered structural damage in rough waters or hit a shoal, lost buoyancy, and was propelled nose first to the bottom of the lake.

“The stern twisted off and landed upside down, the bow section settled right side up, and they’re about 175 feet apart,” he says. “Between them there’s all this ripped and shredded metal.”

While shipwreck exploration may explain some mysteries, others may never be solvedsuch as the wedding band found years ago on a skeleton in 265 feet of water on the wrecked ship, Superior City.

“It had engraving on it that said ‘Edwin’,” recalls Farnquist. “But the only Edwin on the crew list was an Edwin Richardson; he would have been 10 years old when he got married according to that inscription.”

Farnquist speculates the ring belonged to Richardon’s father, or to someone who boarded the vessel in 1920 under an assumed name and wasn’t on the crew list.

The mystery continues.