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HomeMI HistoryShipwrecksHistoric Shipwreck Lore off the Coast of Grand Haven South Pierhead Inner...

Historic Shipwreck Lore off the Coast of Grand Haven South Pierhead Inner Light

Historical photos courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard and historical archives as referenced

Much like the Titanic — the ship that was “unsinkable” — the SS Ironsides was believed to be built with superior quality and was pronounced to be in excellent condition. This belief adds to the mystery of her sinking on Sept. 15, 1873, when she came to rest at the bottom of Lake Michigan, off the coast of Grand Haven.

SS Ironsides sinking as illustrated by Samuel Ward Stanton in 1895.

A Sept. 21, 1864 article in the Detroit Free Press described her as “faultless – her water lines splendidly drawn, which gives the boat a graceful and majestic appearance.” It went on to praise the ship’s accommodations and safety features. From the description of the ship, the SS Ironsides was the Titanic of the Great Lakes, so to speak: grand and unsinkable. 

…She is constructed of the choicest material, and in point of strength it is impossible that anything more substantial can be accomplished.

Detroit Free Press, September 21, 1864

The original ports of call for the newly built SS Ironsides were major ports in Lake Superior, Detroit and Mackinac Island. In 1869, the ship was sold to the Engleman company of Milwaukee (along with her sister ship the Lac la Belle, which suffered a similar fate in 1872). The Ironsides was then commissioned for a direct route between Milwaukee and Grand Haven and their respective railroad lines.

 Cylinder heads. Photo by Valerie van Heest. courtesy of Michigan Shipwreck Research Association.

On the morning of her demise, she was sailing from Milwaukee to Grand Haven with less than two dozen passengers, 30 crew members and a hull full of wheat, flour and pork in mild weather.

But before dawn, as so unexpectedly happens on the Great Lakes, a fierce gale formed that was mightier than the “unmatched” build of the SS Ironsides.

Imagine waves so mighty that they tossed the 937-ton SS Ironsides around as if it had the build of a paper boat.

Rumors from the time have Captain Harry Sweetman twice attempting to bring SS Ironsides safely into the Grand Haven Channel, each time missing the mark and having to turn the ship around, with massive waves crashing over her sides and tossing her about. It is believed that he aborted his third attempt and backed the SS Ironsides away from the shore to wait out the storm. But alas, his retreat was feeble.  

Boiler Firebox. Photo by Valerie van Heest, courtsey of Michigan Shipwreck Research Association.

It is now believed that the ship “bottomed out” on the beach, as evidenced by the damage to six of her eight mighty propellers. By 9 a.m. the morning of Sept. 15, the ship began to sink, and the Captain put out a distress call by raising a flag on her mast.

It wasn’t until 11 a.m. that the five lifeboats were lowered into Lake Michigan and all passengers and crew were off the ship. About an hour later, they watched the SS Ironside slip below the surface of Lake Michigan in 120 feet of water, four miles west-southwest of Grand Haven.

 The Ironsides’ capstan — now buried under the collapsed stern. Photo by Valerie van Heest. courtesy of Michigan Shipwreck Research Association.

But all were not safe, as tragedy was about to rear its ugly head. Of the five lifeboats that were launched, only two made it safely to shore. Three of them capsized in the treacherous surf.

It is rumored that local residents formed human chains into the water in an attempt to “sweep up” the capsized passengers, but they did not manage to save everyone.

Local newspapers reported that 11 passengers lost their lives, along with 10 crew members, but also stated that nine passengers were saved along with 23 crew members — exceeding the 49 people believed to be aboard at the time. It is now believed that 20 people lost their lives that day.

The propelling power of this splendid craft are by no means to be passed by.

Detroit Free Press, September 21, 1864

A Bit of Ghostly Lore

One who perished that fateful day was a toddler by the name of Henry Valentine. Young Henry was sailing with his mother, Nettie, who also lost her life. Henry was reported to have been wearing a little blue sailor suit in celebration of his journey across Lake Michigan.

Nettie’s body is reported to have been discovered bobbing in the water, while young Henry was found on shore, partially buried in the sand, without a mark on him.

Cylinder. Photo by Valerie van Heest. courtesy of Michigan Shipwreck Research Association.

Some believe that the ghost of young Henry haunts the area where the shipwreck occurred and that visitors can hear his voice calling out for help.

During the annual Coast Guard Festival in Grand Haven in August of 2000, the US Coast Guard vessel Mackinaw and her crew were sailing through heavy fog off the coast. Crew members claim they clearly heard a child calling out for help. Rescue boats and local law enforcement were contacted and the search for the source of the cries commenced. After fully and diligently searching the area and having received no actual reports of distress or of an accident, all involved in the recovery efforts reluctantly gave up the search.

It was apparently later reported that when the crew heard the cries of distress, they were sailing over the site of the sunken SS Ironside.

Was the voice they heard indeed the haunting cries of young Henry Valentine, lost over 150 years ago?

Diver Craig Rich explores the SS Ironsides stern area in 2008. Photo by Valerie van Heest. Sourced from Michigan Shipwreck Research Association.
Photo by Gary Syrba

Read the related story about the evolution of the infamous Grand Haven South Pierhead Inner Light.

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Tamara Graham
Tamara Graham
With an adventurous spirit and a burning desire to make the world work for all of us, Tamara encourages others to embrace self-love, compassion, empathy, understanding, and an ever important sense of humor. With over 30 years of diverse marketing experience, including a decade in publishing, she brings a fresh and innovative perspective to the industry. Her concept revolves around experiential magazines that captivate both online and in print. Tamara's visionary project, LIVE. LOVE. LOCAL. MICHIGAN™, unveils the wonders of our breathtaking home state, igniting love and admiration among Michiganders for where they live. By fostering this deep connection, she inspires a genuine appreciation and love for where we live!
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