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.

Beautiful sunrise on Lake Michigan with birds flying around a lighthouse

Lake Michigan, one of the five Great Lakes of North America, has many fascinating features and facts:

  1. Only Great Lake Entirely in the U.S.: Lake Michigan is the only one of the Great Lakes that is located entirely within the United States, bordered by Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin.
  2. Third Largest Great Lake: By surface area, Lake Michigan is the third largest of the Great Lakes, covering about 22,400 square miles (58,000 square kilometers). By volume, it is the second largest.
  3. Long Shoreline: Lake Michigan has a shoreline that stretches for about 1,640 miles (2,640 kilometers), including its many bays and inlets. Its shoreline includes famous beaches, sand dunes, and urban areas.
  4. Sand Dunes: The eastern shore of Lake Michigan features the largest freshwater sand dunes in the world. Notable dune areas include Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and Indiana Dunes National Park.
  5. Chicago: The city of Chicago, located on the southwestern shore of Lake Michigan, is one of the largest cities in the United States and an important cultural and economic hub.
  6. Island Archipelago: Lake Michigan contains several islands, with Beaver Island being the largest. The Manitou Islands and the Fox Islands are also notable.
  7. Shipping and Commerce: Lake Michigan is a crucial part of the Great Lakes shipping system, connecting to the Atlantic Ocean via the Saint Lawrence Seaway and to the Mississippi River via the Illinois Waterway.
  8. Ice Cover: In winter, Lake Michigan can develop extensive ice cover, although it does not typically freeze over completely due to its size and depth.
  9. Great Lakes Circle Tour: The Lake Michigan Circle Tour is a designated scenic road system that goes around the entire lake, providing travelers with views of its natural beauty and access to various attractions.
  10. Ecological Diversity: The lake supports a diverse range of wildlife, including fish species like lake trout, salmon, and perch. The surrounding habitats support a variety of bird species and other wildlife.
  11. Shipwrecks: Like the other Great Lakes, Lake Michigan has a significant number of shipwrecks. The Manitou Passage Underwater Preserve is one area where many wrecks can be explored by divers.
  12. Tourism and Recreation: Lake Michigan is a popular destination for boating, fishing, swimming, and other recreational activities. The lake’s beaches, particularly those in Michigan and Wisconsin, attract millions of visitors each year.
  13. Lighthouses: The lake is dotted with numerous historic lighthouses that have guided ships safely through its waters for over a century. The Big Sable Point Lighthouse and the Milwaukee Pierhead Light are notable examples.
  14. Chicago River Reversal: In the early 20th century, the flow of the Chicago River was famously reversed to improve sanitation and protect the city’s drinking water supply. This engineering feat connected the river to the Mississippi River watershed.
  15. Freshwater Seas: Like the other Great Lakes, Lake Michigan is sometimes referred to as an “inland sea” because of its vast size and the ocean-like behavior of its waves and weather patterns.

Additional Information

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

Several museums located on or near Lake Michigan showcase the region’s rich cultural, historical, and natural heritage. Here are some notable ones:

  1. The Art Institute of Chicago (Chicago, Illinois):
    • One of the oldest and largest art museums in the United States, it features an extensive collection of artworks spanning different periods and cultures, including iconic pieces like Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” and Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte.”
  2. Museum of Science and Industry (Chicago, Illinois):
    • Situated on the lakefront in Jackson Park, this museum offers a wide range of interactive exhibits on science, technology, and industry, including a German U-boat from World War II.
  3. Field Museum of Natural History (Chicago, Illinois):
    • Located on the lakefront Museum Campus, it houses extensive collections related to natural history, anthropology, and paleontology, including the famous T. rex skeleton, Sue.
  4. Shedd Aquarium (Chicago, Illinois):
    • Also part of the Museum Campus, the Shedd Aquarium is one of the largest indoor aquariums in the world, featuring a diverse array of aquatic animals and ecosystems from around the globe.
  5. Milwaukee Art Museum (Milwaukee, Wisconsin):
    • Known for its striking architecture, including the Quadracci Pavilion designed by Santiago Calatrava, the museum hosts a diverse collection of artworks, with strengths in American and European art.
  6. Harbor Country Historical Society Museum (New Buffalo, Michigan):
    • This museum focuses on the local history of Harbor Country, with exhibits on Native American artifacts, early settlers, and the region’s maritime heritage.
  7. Grand Rapids Public Museum (Grand Rapids, Michigan):
    • While a bit inland, it features exhibits on the cultural and natural history of the region, including a re-creation of a 19th-century Grand Rapids street and a planetarium.
  8. Michigan Maritime Museum (South Haven, Michigan):
    • This museum is dedicated to the maritime history of the Great Lakes, with exhibits on shipbuilding, lighthouse history, and commercial fishing. It also offers boat tours on historic vessels.
  9. Kalamazoo Valley Museum (Kalamazoo, Michigan):
    • Although inland, this museum offers interactive exhibits on science, technology, and regional history, including a notable exhibit on the history of Kalamazoo.
  10. The Old Lighthouse Museum (Michigan City, Indiana):
    • Housed in a historic lighthouse, this museum features exhibits on the maritime history of the southern Lake Michigan region, including shipwrecks, the lighthouse’s history, and the local fishing industry.
  11. Door County Maritime Museum (Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin):
    • Located in Sturgeon Bay, this museum offers exhibits on the maritime history of Door County, including shipbuilding, lighthouse history, and commercial fishing. The museum also has a restored 1919 tugboat, the John Purves.
  12. Southport Light Station Museum (Kenosha, Wisconsin):
    • Located in Kenosha’s historic lighthouse keeper’s house, this museum offers exhibits on the maritime history of Kenosha and the Great Lakes, including lighthouse technology and local shipwrecks.

These museums provide a diverse array of exhibits and collections that highlight the rich maritime history, cultural heritage, and natural environment of the Lake Michigan region.