North Shore Shipwrecks

Chicago's North Shore Shipwrecks
by Mark S. Braun

The North Shore of Chicago is a unique place. No large ship can find port along it. There are sandbars throughout which block all approaches to the shore. Several schooners and shallow-drafted steamers used to stop at the piers in Highland Park, Winnetka, Wilmette and Evanston, but mostly the area is unapproachable and hostile. In addition, the North Shore beaches are rather short with high bluffs and deep ravines before it. Lake Michigan does not gently flow away from the shore. Instead, the tricky currents have created rocky shoals and sandbars that extend as much as five miles out into the lake. Ships used to think they were a safe distance from the bluffs and run up on the Glencoe Shoal, where it is only eight feet deep two miles from the shore. Yet, a ship can be a mile and a half from shore and completely miss the shoal, thereby making it safely to its destination.

Common to the Great Lakes are short waves. A wave will hit a ship on the lakes and before the ship has a chance to recover, it is hit with another and still a third. Seamen on the lakes call this wave action "the three sisters." If the waves are high enough, they can flip over a ship of any size. In addition, Lake Michigan is like a bathtub. A storm wave will bounce back and forth across the 100-mile width, building truly monumental, angry whitecaps.

During the 1860's, schooners kept meeting the shore all over the lakes. Blown helter-skelter by storms on Lake Michigan, schooners fetched up on shore or sandbars with an alarming frequency during the 1860s. There were 14 known occurrences of this type during the decade along the North Shore. Many of the ship mishaps of the time were collisions between a steamer and schooner or between two schooners, as the ships bent their courses to avoid bumping up on Grosse Point.


Chicago's North Shore Shipwrecks by Mark S. Braun
Transportation Trails, Polo, Illinois, 1992