Today, an almost forgotten chapter on opening up
the American West. The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about
the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
The Northwest Passage was a
great will-o-the-wisp for early explorers. Surely a
water route could be found from the Atlantic to the
Pacific. Surely! But where? The best we could do
was to follow the St. Lawrence River up through
Lake Ontario to Niagara Falls. After portaging
around the Falls, we continued through the four
western lakes: Erie, Huron, Michigan, and Superior.
The route reached from the Atlantic to Duluth --
halfway across the continent.
From the late 18th century on, this was a
well-travelled route. And so its history is spelled
out on the lake beds below. They're littered with
ship hulks that tell a story about our
Divers list over 500 wrecks. Those normally placid
waters aren't as kind as we might think. Winter
winds are vicious in the North. Tobermory Point,
between Lake Huron and Georgian Bay, is the site of
many wrecks within reach of divers.
Here's the Arabia. Its name is ironic
in its cold grave a hundred feet down. The
Arabia was an early steamer that still
carried sail. A terrible gale opened a leak in its
side in 1884. The crew escaped in lifeboats, but
the Arabia has still managed to claim
lives. Below the thermoclines, the ship rests in
permanent near-freezing temperatures. Many have
died diving into its wreck unprepared for such
The Great Lakes hulks are pretty well preserved.
Northern waters don't put a wreck under the same
organic assault that warm salt seas do. The
Arabia's dim-lit anchors, chains, main
wheel, and bowsprit all look like part of some
Flying Dutchman, ready to rise and
haunt the lake on icy winter nights.
The Arabia went down carrying 20,000
bushels of corn. Fish like to swim around wrecks,
so divers follow fishermen. But in this case, the
trail was clearer than usual. Divers were led by
stories about fish in one area that always turned
up with blackened kernels of corn in their
Near the Arabia lies the
Sweepstakes. Built in 1867, it sank in
1896, weighted down with a load of coal. It's older
and made almost entirely of wood. It rests in
shallow water, where it's been under attack, not by
coral, but by surface ice.
The old Northwest passage isn't used much today.
Most Northern freight is now carried by trains and
airplanes. But this was once a major highway. And
the litter of sunken ships is a museum that spells
out a rapidly fading chapter in American history.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds