Ships have been sailing the five North American freshwater lakes known as the Great Lakes since the 17th century. Naturally, this means that like the 569 shipwrecks in international waters, a number of ships have sunk there. While many were never found, making the exact number of Great Lakes shipwrecks somewhat of a mystery, plenty of others’ whereabouts are known, like that of the 1975 sinking of Edmund Fitzgerald.
In our coverage of the shipwrecks in the Great Lakes, we’ll go over the deadliest lake of the five, along with the months when ships sank most frequently, and the most disastrous years. Learn more about the stories in the wreckages on the map below.
View Shipwrecks in the Great Lakes in a full screen map
Of 396 total ships that have gone down in the Great Lakes, only one hundred or so have identifiable locations. Find those on the map, which was made from the List of shipwrecks in the Great Lakes. You can sort by lake or sunk date/month/year. Let’s dive into which of the Great Lakes has sunk the most ships.
To start, let’s look at which of the five Great Lakes is home to the most shipwrecks—the ones with precise coordinates and those that are more mysterious.
- Lake Erie (137 shipwrecks)
- Lake Ontario (89)
- Lake Superior (69)
- Lake Michigan (60)
- Lake Huron (41)
As noted above, the waters of Lake Erie have claimed the most ships. What’s surprising is that Lake Erie is the smallest Great Lake in volume. However, as it’s also the shallowest, this may be what causes so many ships to sink. 78 of Lake Erie’s shipwrecks can be pinpointed on a map, such as PS Anthony Wayne, the oldest steamboat wreck (sunk in 1850) on the Great Lakes. On the other hand, 59 wrecks lie in unknown places in the lake.
Another surprise, Lake Ontario, the second-smallest volume-wise and smallest in area, is home to the second-most shipwrecks of the Great Lakes. Most of these (83 to be exact) sank at unidentified points. The six known wrecks include HMS Speedy, St. Peter, the confusingly-named Unknown, William Johnston, HMS St Lawrence, and HMS Wolfe.
In the deepest and largest lake by volume, there have been 69 total Lake Superior shipwrecks. Of these, 55 are visitable while, for 14, their exact coordinates remain unknown. And though Lake Michigan has only the second-largest volume and is third-largest by area, 60 Lake Michigan shipwrecks have taken place there.
Lake Huron, the third-largest by volume and second largest in area, has been much kinder to sailors traversing its waves. Just 41 ships have gone down there over the years.
Altogether, the bottoms of these five lakes contain a grand total of 396 shipwrecks, though, for 229, the exact location remains unknown. And now that we know where these ships sunk (most were Lake Erie shipwrecks), we can take a look at when they went down.
Of the 199 wrecks with recorded sunk months, nearly 30% took place in the same winter month. See for yourself on the table below.
|Month||Number of shipwrecks|
The Great Lakes’ November waters should have sailors weary. Just over 29% of all recorded ships sunk in that month alone throughout the years. These include two in Lake Ontario, six in Lake Erie, 16 each in Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, and the 18 Lake Superior shipwrecks.
And October is not too far behind in the tally of boat sinking. Three shipwrecks from Lake Ontario, along with Huron’s and Superior’s eight, Lake Erie’s 11, and 13 Lake Michigan shipwrecks add up to 43.
Contrary to what began to look like a winter trend, December, January, and February each have less than 10. Sailors should also feel the safest going across any—or all—the Great Lakes in March. No ship from 1780 to 2000 has ever gone down in that timeframe.
As for years, 1905 was a deadly one for ships: exactly 15 sank that year. Among those, one sank in Lake Erie, while two each went down in Huron and Michigan, and 10 in Lake Superior.
The year with the second-most wrecks was 1913, when 12 ships went down: one each in Lakes Erie and Superior, two in Michigan, and eight in Huron. Most were a result of the Great Storm of 1913, which occurred in November of that year.
See the names of the ships that sank during these years when you sort the map by the “Sunk year” group.
Now, both of these years were quite a long time ago. The only year this century with a single Great Lakes wreck was 2000 when tour boat True North II sank, killing two students in Georgian Bay, Lake Huron.