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Low water levels expose shipwrecks

GRAND HAVEN, Mich. (WZZM) - We are approaching record low lake levels along the lakeshore. As a result, a maritime graveyard is being revealed.

Five historic shipwrecks are now exposed along the edges of Harbor Island in Grand Haven.

The largest of the five was identified by the Michigan Shipwreck Research Associates (MSRA) as the remains of a large steamship that traveled the Great Lakes from 1887-1932.

"Initially, we didn't know what ship it was, " said Valerie van Heest, director of the MSRA.

The frame of an abandoned ship is now above water for the first time in 80 years.

"We looked into historical records of various ships that were abandoned at Grand Haven and we came down to two possibilities, " said van Heest. "The L.L. Barth which was abandoned in 1927 or the Aurora which was abandoned in 1932."

On Friday, December 7, van Heest teamed up with Kenneth Pott who is the director of the Tri-Cities Museum in Grand Haven and  a maritime archeologist to survey the latest wreck. Study of the hull construction, exposed propeller shaft cradle at the stern and exposed sides of the vessel led them to initially conclude that the vessel was a large 40-foot wide steamer and at least 165-feet in length.

Test probes conducted by MSRA members east of the visible portions of the wreck Sunday, December 9 revealed a structure well over 200 feet long, which led van Heest to conclude that the vessel was the Aurora.

Exposed iron bands along the side of the vessel also helped van Heest confirm the ship's identity.

"Our records indicate [the iron bands] were 5-inches by a half-inch, hot-riveted to the hull of the vessel, and to now see that evidence here is incredible," added van Heest.

At the time of its launch in 1887, the Aurora was considered to be the largest wooden steamship traveling the Great Lakes. It served as a coal and grain trade vessel for years, then suffered a fire and had its engine removed and was then turned into a barge to serve another 25-years. It was then abandoned in Grand Haven in 1932.

"We've got about 165-feet of [the Aurora] visible now, but the rest of it is buried in the woods," said van Heest. "We did a probe the other day and we ran into the side of the ship, and at that point we were 210-feet from the stern, so we have another 80-feet of the ship going into the woods."

Local maritime historian Kenneth Pott is thrilled that this wreck has been discovered.

"This ship serves as a very significant metaphor for the role the Great Lakes shipping played in the industrialization of this nation during the time that this ship was in use," said Pott, who is the director of the Tri-Cities Museum in Grand Haven. "We want to capture more information from this site. This is just one of several wrecks that lie within a stone's throw of this location."

Pott says if people choose to visit the wreck site, he asks that you look at the Aurora, but don't touch it.

"The best analogy you can make is it's like a scene of a crime," said Pott. "If you disturb it in any particular way, very valuable information could be lost forever."

And "lost forever" is what many maritime historians thought the Aurora was until receding waters this past fall allowed her to be found.

Valerie van Heest and Kenneth Pott say they hope to also identify the other four shipwrecks, but they're quick to say they're in a race against time. Two potential roadblocks stand before them: significant snowfall this winter and water levels rising again next spring.