Nearly a year to the day after burning for the first time, the 366-ton propeller steamboat Louisville caught fire again in September 1857. She was on her way to St. Joseph, Mich., out of Chicago, carrying wood, corn, flour, seed, horses and 39 passengers from Iowa. The ship began to burn about 10 miles out from Chicago, between decks and surrounded by cargo. The crew could not reach the flames in time to extinguish them before the boat was consumed.
The Louisville now sits on the bottom of Lake Michigan off the Chicago coast, along with around 50 other shipwrecks that divers can explore — though estimates are that as many as 500 shipwrecks may be a diveable distance from shore. Twenty or so are commonly visited. Most of the wrecks date back to Chicago’s time as a shipping hub in the 1800s, transporting people and cargo from east to west in the ever-present urge for westward expansion.
“Transportation, food production and manufacturing infrastructure had all ratcheted up to supply the needs of people moving west,” says Keith Pearson, the main captain at Double Action Dive Charters. “Not to mention, gold had just been found in California at Sutter’s Mill. The bulk of this movement used the easiest, fastest and cheapest transportation methods — which was using the Great Lakes as the highway — and it all funneled through Chicago.”
Those 500 shipwrecks span history, from antiquated fur trader boats to more sophisticated boats that sank in the last 100 years. There are coal-powered steamers and diesel-engine ships, small boats and large vessels — all preserved by the lake’s icy freshwater, though waves will eventually destroy them.
The Louisville, according to Dean Nolan, president of the Underwater Archaeological Society of Chicago, is among the most commonly dived wrecks are:
- The Straits of Mackinac, a 204-foot-long former car ferry intentionally sunk in 2003 to create an artificial reef. It now rests 82 feet down northeast of Chicago’s Navy Pier.
- The Tacoma, an 1894 tugboat that sprang a leak and sank in 1929, now about 35 feet down in a spot 2.5 miles from the Calumet Harbor Light.
- The Wells Burt, an 1873 bulk carrier that sank in a violent 1883 storm, and that remains mostly (and unusually) intact today, about 45 miles down 3 miles east of Evanston. It’s considered one of the best shipwrecks to dive.
The Material Service freighter, which sank in a 1936 storm and is also near the Calumet Harbor Light. “Sunken ships off Chicago are as diverse as the items transported and the men and women who sailed them,” Pearson says. A few spots along the Illinois lakefront have wrecks that people can snorkel to, including the Silver Spray a few hundred feet off the shore near Hyde Park. But in order to get the best experience, he says, diving is the way to go.
The season is short — from May to October — and wetsuits are required because Lake Michigan water is generally chilly, especially closer to May. Water clarity is best early in the season, before plankton take over the lake and block the view.
Only one life was lost in the Louisville shipwreck. About 2 miles away, the schooner Elbe awaited lifeboats from the ill-fated Louisville. Five people climbed into one small boat, which then toppled from the Louisville’s propeller force, drowning the one man who may have tried hardest to save the boat from burning: fireman John Hannan.
How to Get Down
Windy City Diving
With two dive boats — one harbored in downtown Chicago in the Field Museum area and another near the Wisconsin-lllinois border — shipwreck aficionados have access to at least 14 dive spots. Trips are limited to six divers.
Operating from March 15 through Oct. 15 (although you can make an appointment for a winter trip), this company takes its 24-passenger dive boat to nearly 30 wrecks.
Two marinas — one in Hammond, Ind., just south of Chicago, and the other on the northern end of the metropolitan area near the Wisconsin border — provide a broad base for divers.
Divers can take advantage of a training center and indoor practice pool before shipping out on their adventures.
Buy equipment for your chartered trip to a shipwreck. Dive classes are available at Northwestern University.