The Great Lakes: Natural Wonders

Formed at the end of the last Ice Age, the Great Lakes are a unique ecosystem.

The Great Lakes were born about 14,000 years ago by the retreat of a glacier that covered most of Canada and the northern United States. As it shrank, water settled into valleys eroded by the glacier, leaving only hilltops above the surface – forming 35,000 islands, Bluffs, sand dunes, and prairies lined the shore. Together, they are Earth’s largest group of freshwater lakes, holding 21% of the world’s fresh water (and 84% of North America’s).

Each lake is a distinct body with its own biological characteristics; connected by natural and manmade waterways, they form an interdependent ecosystem.

Lake Michigan

Why is this finger of water the deadliest of the Great Lakes?

Lake Michigan, unlike all of the rest of the lakes, is positioned along a north/south axis. This fact, coupled with its proximity to the traditional jet stream activity, makes Lake Michigan the most dangerous and deadly of the lakes – at least in sheer numbers.

Out of the estimated 8,000 shipwrecks on the Great Lakes, nearly 35% rest in the deep waters of Lake Michigan. The north-south orientation leaves little room for a boat to run when storms arrive in the west and travel to the east. It should come as no surprise that the largest numbers of lighthouses on the Great Lakes are found on Lake Michigan or that it also had the most life-saving stations in 1915. In both cases, federal authorities recognized the inherent dangers of navigating the waters.

The waves of Lake Erie may be unrelenting and Lake Superior may never give up her dead, but Lake Michigan is the true graveyard of the Great Lakes.

Dimensions: 307 miles long x 118 miles wide
Depth: average 279 ft, maximum 923 ft
Surface Area: 22,300 sq miles
Volume: 1,180 cubic miles
Elevation: 579 ft, the same as Lake Huron, to which it is connected by the Straits of Mackinac
Shoreline Length: 1,640 miles
Outlet: Straits of Mackinac to Lake Huron
Rentention/Replacement Time: 99 years
Population: 12 million US
Native Fish: lake trout, walleye, bloater, smallmouth bass, deepwater sculpin, and rainbow smelt
Mammals: cougar, black bear, and elk
Forests: southern Lake Michigan: oak, maple, walnut, and basswood. This region also has the last remaining tall grass prairie savanna in the US and oak savanna, one of the world’s most endangered ecosystems

Lake Erie

The last lake to be discovered, Lake Erie is the most contentious.

Lake Erie was the last of the Great Lakes discovered by Europeans and it has been the most contested. As the first Lake above Niagara Falls, it was strategically important to controlling access to the rest of the Great Lakes. The site of many battles, the new independent American nation finally took control in 1813.

Even though wars with Europe ended in the early 19th century, Lake Erie continued to be contested territory among smugglers. By the 1920’s, smugglers made millions, were involved with mob activities, and killed thousands with poisoned alcohol as Lake Erie became the focal point of the rum wars.

Even today, local, state, and federal authorities maintain watch over this international boundary in an effort to insure both peace and prosperity on the Great Lakes.

Native Fish: Walleye, white bass, smallmouth bass, emerald shiner, mollusks, and shad
Mammals: Gray wolf, white-tailed deer
Birds: Shorebirds, including the families of plovers and sandpipers
Forests: Mostly deciduous; 80% are sugar maple and beech
Dimensions: 241 miles long x 57 miles wide
Depth: Average 62 feet; max 210 feet
Surface Area: 9,910 sq miles
Volume: 116 cubic miles
Elevation: 570 feet above sea level
Shoreline Length: 871 miles
Outlet: Niagara River and Welland Canal
Retention/Replacement Time: 2.6 years
Population: 10.5 million US/ 1.9 million Canada

Lake Superior

The iron that built a nation was mined around and shipped across Lake Superior.

Early voyager traders overcame obstacles like the St. Marys Falls by hauling tons of beaver pelts around the falls. Such barriers limited the amount of natural resources that could be moved and brought to commercial centers. Engineers later built canals that permitted large boats to transport thousands of tons of resources to market.

Minerals like copper and iron ore were essential ingredients in the formation of a modern industrial economy. Their widespread availability in the Lake Superior region and their cost effective transportation to urban centers encouraged businessmen to risk everything in hopes of financial success. Many did, many failed, but some, like Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan harnessed these mineral resources to create the greatest economy in world history.

Native Fish: Lake whitefish, yellow perch, cisco or lake herring, kiyi, spawning grounds for brook trout, walleye, and lake sturgeon
Mammals: Moose, woodland caribou, black bear, and gray wolves
Birds: Terns and plovers
Forests: Spruce, fir, pine, and paper birch
Dimensions: 350 miles long x 160 miles wide
Depth: Average 483 feet; max 1,332 feet
Surface Area: 31,700 sq miles, approx. the size of South Carolina
Volume: 2,900 cubic miles
Elevation: 600 feet above sea level
Shoreline Length: 2,726 miles, including islands
Outlet: St. Mary’s River to Lake Huron
Retention/Replacement Time: 191 yrs
Population: 444,000 Us/ 229,000 Canada

Lake Huron

Remote and beautiful, Lake Huron was the first to be discovered by Europeans.

While Lake Huron was the first of the Great Lakes to be discovered by Europeans, it has not experienced heavy industrial development. The pristine nature of Lake Huron and its environs can still be seen in the rustic landscape of the Georgian Bay north shore and the mountains of Manitoulin Island. Although small fishing villages and ports dot the map of Lake Huron, much of it is exactly like it was 10,000 years ago when the retreat of the last glacial ice age gave birth to the Great Lakes.

Lake Huron’s discovery by European explorers fueled the interest in further exploration throughout the Great Lakes region. Like the Glacial Ice Age centuries before, Lake Huron’s discovery began a course of events that dramatically influenced the development of the North American continent.

Today, Lake Huron is a refuge for many seeking the natural experience that the Great Lakes can provide.

Native Fish: Whitefish, lake herring, lake trout, yellow perch, and rainbow smelt
Mammals: Red wolf, coyote, and white-tailed deer
Birds: Pileated woodpeckers, mourning doves, and cardinals
Forests: Spruce fir and aspen begin to mix with sugar maple and yellow birch. White pine and beech grow on the warmer, south-facing slopes.
Dimensions: 206 miles long x 183 miles wide
Depth: Average 195 feet; max 750 feet
Volume: 850 cubic miles
Elevation: 577 feet above sea level
Shoreline Length: 3,827 miles including over 30,000 islands. Huron has the longest shoreline of lakes in the world
Outlet: St. Clair River to Lake Erie
Retention/Replacement Time: 22 years
Population: 1.5 million US/ 1.5 million Canada

Lake Ontario

Via the St. Lawrence Seaway, Lake Ontario is the region’s gateway to the world

Lake Ontario, known as the Lower Lake, sits below the 380 foot escarpment that creates Niagara Falls. The Falls kept Lake Ontario separate from the rest of the lakes until the 1830’s. This isolation and its natural connection to the Atlantic Ocean via the St. Lawrence River, made the Lake Ontario region a natural first for development by European Settlers.

The first steamboat to operate on the Great Lakes cut through Ontario’s waters in 1817. By the 1820’s communities around Lake Ontario were firmly established and prospering while the vast majority of the rest of the Lakes were decades or centuries behind.

The Lake Ontario region, a great industrial innovator, recognized its own assets and exploited them to grow as a community. The cataracts at Niagara were overcome with the construction of the Welland Canal which opened up cost-effective trade between the Lower Lake and its neighbors. Over time a series of canals were constructed culminating in the St Lawrence Seaway System being opened in 1959 – truly opening the Great Lakes to a world economy.

Native Fish: smallmouth bass, walleye, lake trout, whitefish, burbot (freshwater cod), yellow perch, rainbow smelth, efforts are underway to restore native species with stocked non-native salmon
Mammals: moose, wolves, and coyotes
Birds: Bald Eagle and osprey
Forests: Northern Side – sugar maples, red maples, and red oaks. Southern Side – eastern hemlock, beech, and black cherry
Dimensions: 193 miles long x 53 miles wide
Depth: Average 283 feet, max 802 feet
Surface Area: 7,340 sq miles
Volume: 393 cubic miles
Elevation: 243 feet above sea level
Shoreline Length: 712 miles, including islands
Outlet: St. Lawrence River to the Atlantic
Retention/Replacement Time: 6 yrs
Population: 2.8 million US/ 2.8 million Canada

The Great Lakes: A Shaping Force

People vs. Nature

The Great Lakes were created by the natural force of a glacial ice age 12,000 years ago. The mere presence of the Lakes shaped human choices in the creation of trade routes, settlements, and movement westward. The areas vast, vast supply of fresh water of the Inland Seas even influenced the continents efforts to develop both hydro-electric power and nuclear resources.

The Lakes certainly shaped the human experience, but humans also have shaped the physical nature of the Lakes. Canals were created that connected the Lakes. The course and flow of Great Lakes rivers has been altered. Industry has impacted water quality and the species that live in the Lakes.

The Great Lakes: A Life Force

The Lakes support a complex, natural ecosystem – and a commercial one too

The Great Lakes are alive – teeming with aquatic and terrestrial fauna and flora. That abundance of food and the means to make shelter and clothing first drew humans around 9,000 BCE. North American Indians were followed by Europeans, who came in search of a passage to China. They found furs and, later, minerals and other natural resources that spurred settlement and development of a vast economy.

Today, millions of people live around the Great Lakes, still depending on their bounty and transportation to make a living. The Great Lakes give life to the North American continent by providing fresh drinking water to nearly 40 million people. Commercial fishing helps feed both the United States and Canada, and the thousands of miles of waterway continue to support a robust industrial transportation system. In the 21st century, the presence of the Lakes has also enabled millions of people to enjoy recreation uses of our Sweetwater Sea.

Great Lakes Artifacts

Fitzgerald Sounding Board

The Edmund Fitzgerald is not only the Great Lakes most famous shipwreck; it also is one of the Lakes greatest mysteries. The Fitz- one of the largest ore carriers on the Great Lakes – disappeared in a Lake Superior gale on November 10, 1975. There were no survivors from the crew of 29. This sounding board was one of the few pieces recovered on the surface of Lake Superior above the wreck site in 1975.

Niagara Frame

We have met the enemy and they are ours” – Oliver Hazard Perry

On September 10, 1813, U.S ships commanded by Oliver Hazard Perry engaged the British fleet under Robert Heriot Barclay off Put-In-Bay. The battle was fierce; Perry’s flagship, the Lawrence, lost two-thirds of its crew. Perry rowed to the Niagara and sailed her directly into the British line, firing from both sides and hitting four ships. Barclay surrendered. The British supply chain to Canada was broken, a major turning point in the War of 1812. This frame was recovered from the Niagara’s remains when it was raised in 1913 for the battle’s centennial commemoration.

Col. James M. Schoonmaker Bell

On a trip through the Soo Locks in 1909, Col. James M. Schoonmaker remarked to a friend, “You could build a wider ship to fill up these locks,” So they did, and the Col. James M. Schoonmaker reigned as ‘Queen of the Lakes’ – largest vessel on the Great Lakes and the largest bulk carrier in the world – for three years, setting tonnage records for cargoes of iron ore, coal ,and rye along the way. The next queen was longer, but the 64 ft wide Schoonmaker, along with her bell, remained the Lakes widest ship until 1927.

Wooden Rudder

A boat is useful only if it can be steered; otherwise, the boat is simply drifting at the mercy of wind and water. Since humans first took to the water, rudders have developed from simple oars to tiller and rudders to today’s complex power steering mechanisms. Most vessels are steered using a rudder like this one. When mounted at the back of the boat, the rudder is turned to deflect water flow, making the boat turn. This rudder was discovered off Kelley’s Island in the 1950’s and is thought to date from the early 1800’s. This might be the oldest artifact in the collection.