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Icebound! A Part of Michigan Maritime History

By Cindy Murphy

Tags: Lake Michigan, maritime, history, museums,

Maritime Museum Harbor

It was the perfect day for it. Though temperatures during the preceding week ranged between the below zero mark and the single digits, the thermometer that Sunday afternoon hovered in the mid-twenties. Downright balmy, it seemed. The storm had dumped day-after-day of snow, and it was still coming down. Wind added to the over-all feeling that one just might have been transported back to the winter of 1885. A photo shown during the presentation I was attending confirmed it: The only noticeable difference between the South Haven in the photo during the 1880s, and today was the mode of transportation of the time; horses struggled to make their way through the snow instead of cars.

Mother Nature certainly appeared to have set the stage well for Valerie van Heest’s

 lecture at the Michigan Maritime Museum. But appearances can be deceiving: the feet of snow already on the ground and still accumulating, the wind and bitter temperatures, and the layer of ice on the channel outside the museum, were nothing compared to what George Sheldon and his fellow crewmates aboard the SS Michigan endured 125 years earlier.

Valerie van Heest is not only an engaging speaker, but is a world class diving champion, shipwreck hunter, and author. She a member of the Women Divers Hall of Fame and co-founded Chicago’s Underwater Archeological Society, the Southwest Michigan Underwater Preserve and Michigan Shipwreck Research Associates. The topic of her presentation at the maritime museum was the wrecks she and her team have discovered on the bottom of Lake Michigan, particularly focusing on the SS Michigan.

The SS Michigan was a 200 foot luxury passenger steamship. One of the grandest on the Great Lakes, it boasted the best of amenities for the vacationing passengers traveling from West Michigan to Wisconsin in the 1880’s. No expense had been spared on the rich wood paneling, oriental rugs, artwork, and the grand staircase with the sky light above. And with five watertight compartments and a double iron hull below, the Michigan was strong as well as stately.

Its strength was the reason it was called into service as a rescue boat in the winter of 1885. The double hull was thought strong enough to break through the ice that had stranded its sister ship, the Oneida, in the worst storm to hit the area in a decade.

The SS Michigan left port on February 9, 1885, never to return. Ironically in a time before ship-to-ship communication, the sister ship broke free at nearly the same time the S.S. Michigan left to rescue her. For forty days the Michigan was stuck in the ice, until finally its hull buckled under the pressure, and it sank to the bottom of the lake. All of the twenty-nine crew aboard though, made it to safety due in large part to the efforts and perseverance of one young man – the ship's porter, George Sheldon.

Stranded, the Michigan had drifted with the ice pack 40 miles from where she started. After about a week, with rations running short, and the storm showing no signs of stopping, the captain picked seventeen of the strongest crew members to attempt a walk to shore. George Sheldon, the youngest aboard, was one of those who trekked across the snow and ice, equipped with only with axes, a small supply of rations, and a compass.

For more than 10 hours in temperatures below minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit, they hiked twelve to fifteen miles to shore, and then trudged even further until they reached a farmhouse. From there, they were sleighed to a train station for the trip back home.

Once they reached Grand Haven where they began their voyage, George wasn't done. He returned to the ship on foot with news, letters from home, food, and even whiskey! Then only 2 days later, carrying a bag packed with letters from the crew, George returned back to shore, and helped organize a rescue. On February 25th, bringing six locals with him, George once again boarded the Michigan with supplies ... but not enough to feed the six extra men, and they were ordered back to shore.

The immense pressure of the ice was too much; on March 19th the hull began to buckle. A tug boat, The Artic, had been sent as a rescue, and was spotted by the Michigan’s crew nearly four miles in the distance. The tug’s nickname, “The Ice Crusher,” did it little good, and the smaller boat got stranded in the ice also. With its hull breaking apart, the remaining crew aboard the S.S. Michigan made their way across the ice to The Artic. With less than the mile left to walk, the crew watched the SS Michigan sink to its final resting place.

Supplies on The Artic were short too, so on March 23rd the crew of the Michigan headed out once again on the ice. Finally, 40 days after they first left shore, the crew set foot on land.

The tug boat though, was still stranded ... and you guessed it, George made another walk across the ice carrying supplies. Though he was a strong young man – only 21 – the trips took their toll on his health, and he never recovered. He died at the age of twenty-five.

One hundred and twenty years later, Van Heest's team found the wreck of the S.S. Michigan under 275 feet of water, preserved like a time capsule – even George Sheldon’s lanterns were in place much in the way he left them. His story displays the same type of spirit that GRIT is based upon – perseverance, responsibility, and determination – and is told in Van Heest’s 2008 Michigan State History Award winning children’s book, Icebound! The Adventures of Young George Sheldon and the SS Michigan.

She and her team continue to persevere also, striving to bring to light stories like George’s for the families of shipwreck survivors, for those who lost their lives in Lake Michigan, and to preserve Michigan’s maritime history. Currently her team is working with best selling author and founder of the National Underwater Marine Agency, Clive Cussler, in the search for the elusive wreck of Northwest Flight 1205 which went down off the shores of South Haven in 1950.

To learn more about the search for Flight 1205, the worst U.S. aviation disaster of the time, Icebound! The Adventures of Young George Sheldon and the SS Michigan, and other of Van Heest’s discoveries, check out her website.