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Ask a Hemmings Editor – Are there really shipwrecks full of old cars at the bottom of the Great Lakes?

Published in blog.hemmings.com

While discussing the cars used as automotive riprap in the recent Brecksville carspotting post, we heard plenty of fascinating stories of cars sent to the bottoms of various bodies of water, either intentional or not. Among those stories, we also heard a couple urban legends about entire shipments of cars lost to the depths of the Great Lakes, and anytime we hear of an automotive urban legend, we’ve gotta investigate.

So to start with, those two tales that spurred this look-see. The first, from Ted:

There is a long-running urban legend (may be true… who knows?) that a boatload of ’42 Cadillacs is at the bottom of the Detroit River, “and they should be solid as a rock because oxygen can’t get to them underwater… Somebody just has to go find this sunken treasure…”

And the second, from Clark Kent:

Also supposedly there is a boatload of  20’s Nashes, at the bottom of Lake Michigan, off of Ludington.  If the depths of the Great lakes could only talk.

Sunken treasure, indeed. The Cadillac tale, in particular, sounds juicy. We’ll add here that we’ve also heard tales of barges full of Model Ts and the scrapped inventory of Copper-Cooled Chevrolets at the bottom of the lakes. Investigating this story, however, is easier than it sounds. While there are plenty of records out there on Great Lakes shipwrecks (an estimated total of 6,000 of them), both individual and collective, they’re not exactly searchable by cargo, so it’s a matter of combing through individual shipwreck records to see what the ships were carrying.

In doing so, we’ve come across four shipwrecks that took all or some of their automotive shipments down with them:

SS Lakeland – December 1924, Lake Michigan, near Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. Carried at least 25 cars, among them Nashes, Kissels, and one Rollin. The Rollin was salvaged but reportedly too far deteriorated to restore. Site is now listed with the National Register of Historic Places.

City of Bangor – November 1926, Lake Superior, off the Keweenaw Peninsula, Michigan. Stranded after being trapped in the ice. Carried 248 Chryslers, of which all but 18 were removed from the ship before it was scrapped on site.

Senator – October 1929, Lake Michigan, near Port Washington, Wisconsin. Carried 268 Nash automobiles, some still chained in place inside the hull, some scattered onto the lakebed. Site is now listed with the National Register of Historic Places.

SS Milwaukee – October 1929, Lake Michigan, 10 miles from Milwaukee. One railcar full of cars; reports vary on whether they were Nashes or Kissels.

In addition, while we’ve read that the Prins Willem V sank in 1954 in Lake Michigan with Nash automobiles on board, her entry on Wisconsin Shipwrecks notes that she was carrying only engines at the time. This list also doesn’t include single cars found among shipwrecks, like the 1927 Chevrolet coupe among the wreckage of the Manasoo, or those cars that fell through the ice back in the days when the ice was thick and extensive enough to allow people to drive out to the Lake Erie Islands.

It’s possible Clark Kent was referring to the wreck of the Senator, though if there’s another shipwreck full of Nashes, that company sure had a tough time getting its cars across the lake. We’ve come across no other reference to a shipwreck full of Cadillacs, and the only 1942 Great Lakes shipwreck we’ve seen so far took place in Lake Erie.

As for the preservative qualities of the Great Lakes, the deeper lakes like Superior and Michigan do indeed have lower oxygen levels at their depths. Lake Erie, the shallowest of the lakes, doesn’t preserve wrecks as well as the others. However, the zebra mussel infestation (kill ’em all!) isn’t exactly helping to preserve anything in the Great Lakes these days.

All that said, we don’t consider this an exhaustive list, and we’d certainly welcome any additions to it.