On July 15, 1914—almost exactly a year before the Eastland disaster—the Silver Spray ran aground on Morgan Shoal, just a few hundred feet off Hyde Park’s 49th Street beach. The 109-foot passenger steamer was on its way to pick up 200 University of Chicago students and take them to Gary, Indiana, to tour the steel mills; according to an article that ran the next day in the Chicago Examiner, the cook was making a stew at the time and the seven-man crew refused to abandon the listing ship.
“The captain took his post of duty on the bridge and addressed the crew,” the Examiner gushed. “‘As for me,’ he said, sniffing the savory ordoe [sic] of the stew, ‘I shall remain on board. I shall stay with the ship.’ He spoke huskily. There was a note of hunger in his voice. ‘But as for the rest of you,’ the captain continued, ‘those who so desire may get into that lifeboat and strike for shore.’ Not a man moved save the cook, who stirred some spice into the stew.”
Three days later, after various vessels attempted to pull the Silver Spray free of the limestone reef, the crew was taken ashore. Later that afternoon, to the apparent delight of beachcombers, waves finally broke the boat apart. “With greedy eyes and twitching fingers the ‘buzzards of the beach’ gathered from far and near to [a]wait the wreckage,” the Examiner reported. “Like a Roman holiday, bonfires of the sturdy timbers were built and in their flaring light a feast of the remnants was made, until finally the celebration became so hilarious that policemen were called in to break up the proceedings.”
The Tribune‘s account, in less colorful language, noted that as the ship was breaking up, “the boiler floated out through a rent in one of the sides.”
Today that boiler is still visible from the beach, a boxy metal structure rising a few feet above the top of the water. From the shore it’s easy to mistake for a rock or chunk of concrete, and for years I saw it without giving it a second thought. Last August, on a bike ride with a friend, I passed the concrete blocks that separate the beach from the Lakefront Trail and noticed a sign colorfully markered on a dry-erase board: shipwreck tours 10:30-noon, free.
I’d stopped there before as a break from other bike rides. I’d waded in the shallow water and picked tiny, smooth pieces of sea glass from the tiny, smooth stones that have earned that part of the shoreline the name Pebble Beach. I’d appreciated the fact that it was usually relatively deserted compared to the always-packed sand beaches nearby. But I’d never noticed any sign of a shipwreck there.
It was around 11 AM when we saw the sign, so we stopped, curious. When we got down to the beach a thin, sandy-haired man wearing khaki shorts and Tevas was just launching into an explanation of what the Silver Spray was, how she sank, and how he knew about it. Greg Lane, 45, is a Hyde Park woodworker and community activist who swims in the lake daily, even when air temperatures are in the single digits and ice forms on the shoreline—and he doesn’t wear a wetsuit. He’s also the former publisher of the Baffler, the left-wing journal known for its satire, and in the warmer months runs a company called Chicago Honeybee Rescue: he removes bee colonies from places where they’re not wanted, like houses, and relocates them to his own backyard to rehabilitate the colonies and, if possible, adopt them out. The beehives Lane uses are ones he makes himself from reclaimed Chicago lumber (which he uses for all his woodworking).
Lane had become curious about the object in the water about five years ago, he said, and checked it out on one of his daily swims (he usually swims off of Promontory Point, but about once a week he’ll come to the 49th Street beach). It looked like a boiler to him, and he started doing research to find out where it had come from. As he learned more, he began to invite people to join him on his swims out to Morgan Shoal. Lane’s son, who’s now eight, did the swim for the first time last year.
At first Lane advertised only through word of mouth, but about a year and a half ago he started putting a sign out on the Lakefront Trail to advertise his Sunday-morning tours of the wreck. Since then, he says, attendance has increased dramatically. Since he swims year-round, Lane also does the tours year-round—at least in theory. In reality, he says, turnout in the winter is low at best.
On that August Sunday, Lane showed the assembled handful of people black-and-white photos of the ship and a hand-drawn diagram of the pieces scattered on the shoal, explaining that on this part of the lakefront the water deepens to about 20 feet very quickly as you move away from the shoreline, then becomes much shallower on the shoal, ranging from about three to ten feet. He’d brought snorkel masks and fins for people to borrow, though for legal reasons he said he couldn’t officially lead people out to the wreck. But he was going to swim out there, he said, and wouldn’t stop anyone who wanted to follow him.
My friend and I didn’t go into the lake that day: we hadn’t brought swimsuits, and didn’t relish the idea of wearing sopping wet clothes for the rest of our bike ride. But we did return on a different Sunday morning, a month or so later, to swim out to the wreck with Lane. The water was relatively calm, and our group of half a dozen people made the short swim out to the boiler without incident. There, the water was shallow enough for us to stand on the shoal and get our bearings while Lane searched for the propeller and driveshaft nearby.
The water was murky that day, making it impossible to see more than a few feet ahead. Still, he located it after just a few minutes and we dove down to investigate, then continued our exploration of the shoal. Rocks were covered with aquatic plants and thousands of zebra mussels, the invasive species that some scientists say could ruin the ecosystems of the Great Lakes. I found a propeller blade from a modern boat, about a foot long and surprisingly heavy for its size; Lane said that small pleasure boats often lose propellers on the shoal. Another woman in the group came across an enormous chain, one end of which disappeared beneath what looked like a block of concrete. It might have been part of the Silver Spray, Lane said, but there was no way to know for sure.
The Silver Spray is just one of several hundred shipwrecks at the bottom of Lake Michigan, not to mention dozens of airplanes—many of them WWII fighter planes—and a German U-boat from World War I that was intentionally sunk in 1921. The Great Lakes Storm of 1913 (a blizzard with hurricane-strength winds also known as the “Big Blow” and the “Freshwater Fury”) alone sank a dozen ships and killed more than 250 people in less than 24 hours. It’s not uncommon for shipwrecks here to be extremely well preserved, even after a hundred years or more: the cold, fresh water of the lake and the lack of wood-boring organisms present in many oceans means there’s often very little deterioration of the ships or their contents. But the Silver Spray‘s shallow resting place and proximity to shore have made it vulnerable to the lake’s wave action, and only a few pieces—the aforementioned boiler and propeller, and possibly a few propeller blades—are identifiable as part of the ship. Any artifacts on board were most likely washed away years ago.
“When you can actually swim up and touch and feel and see the texture and the bulk of these ship parts, history really becomes real. There’s no place like this on Chicago’s lakefront.”—Silver Spray preservationist Greg Lane, who’s been swimming out to the wreck at least weekly for the past five years
The same factors that have ensured the ship’s deterioration over time, however, are also what make it unusual: most of the other known shipwrecks are miles from shore and at least 30 feet underwater, making them accessible only to scuba divers. The Silver Spray, just a few hundred feet from shore, is easy to reach without a boat and, thanks to the fact that the boiler pokes up above the water, easy to find.
Exploring the remains of the wreck last summer, I understood what had fueled Lane’s fascination with it. There may not be much of the ship left, but what is there feels—cliche as it sounds—like a hidden world. Finding even a small piece of twisted metal on the bottom of the lake felt like a major discovery, and while the plant life and fish on the shoal may pale in comparison to the Caribbean’s flora and fauna, investigating it was still fascinating.
“Everyone is just taken by this wreck,” Lane says. “When you can actually swim up and touch and feel and see the texture and the bulk of these ship parts, history really becomes real.” He adds, “There’s no place like this on Chicago’s lakefront. It’s utterly unique.”
It’s also in danger of disappearing entirely. As part of an eight-mile shoreline-protection project authorized by the federal government in 1996, the Chicago Park District plans to add 25 acres of land to the shoreline from 45th to 51st Street by landfilling over Morgan Shoal—which would also cover the remains of the shipwreck.
Rob Rejman, director of the Planning, Construction, and Facility Management department of the Park District, says that the Morgan Shoal area has been included in the plans because the shoreline there is in bad shape, and existing reinforcements have been crumbling over time. The design is still in the planning stages, and he doesn’t believe it will be carried out before the end of 2014 at the earliest. But still, Rejman says: “It’s authorized, and it’s happening.”
The shoreline-protection project is about 70 percent complete overall, according to Rejman, with four areas left to go: two on the north side, the Morgan Shoal area, and the area around Promontory Point, where the plan was to replace the existing limestone steps with a concrete wall that would have limited water access. Community opposition to the original plan and controversy over proposed compromises have kept any rebuilding from being done, however. Greg Lane was the spokesman for the community task force.
“What motivates me the most is when I see institutions in power exercising that power without public input or participation,” Lane says. “It’s classic of powerful politicians like former mayor Daley.”
There’s also a simpler reason he wants to protect the shoal: “I don’t want to lose one of my places to swim,” Lane says. “I’ve swum a lot of Chicago’s lakefront, and it’s basically all sand. You get out to Morgan Shoal, and man! There’s a lot to see, and you just want to keep going.”
This isn’t the first time Morgan Shoal has been slated for landfill. Lane found a 1912 City Council report approving the transformation of Morgan Shoal to Morgan Island by using the shoal “as a depository for city waste.” Obviously, that never happened. If it had, the Silver Spray probably wouldn’t have collided with the shoal.
To Lane, the fact that the city has been trying to pave over Morgan Shoal for over a hundred years and hasn’t been able to seems like a sign. Lane says he had a somewhat naive idea that if people only knew what was there, the plans to get rid of it would be scrapped. “It’s such an obvious, glorious, beautiful treasure that I think you could take the most cynical, hardened bureaucrat out there [and] they’d say, ‘OK, this is something we want to keep.’ Nothing they could possibly build there could compete with what is there now.”
Lane says he called the Park District in 2011 to find out what he could do and was told that if he got a survey of the wreck, Park District officials could submit it to the National Register of Historic Places. After a little research he found that the Underwater Archaeological Society of Chicago does shipwreck surveys, so he got in touch with them, gave a presentation at one of their monthly meetings, and last year started working with UASC member Jonathan Plotner, who’s trained in underwater archaeology, on a survey.
Plotner, like Lane, believes the shoal is unique. “There seems to be more biodiversity there than elsewhere in the lake,” he says. “I’ve seen fish there that I have not seen elsewhere.”
Much of what Plotner has been doing is historical research; he especially wants to find a blueprint of the ship. Because there’s so much other debris on the shoal, that’s the only way to tell for sure what came from the Silver Spray. So far, though, he’s been unsuccessful.
Plotner says that he believes all shipwrecks are worth preserving, but this one is especially interesting because it’s so close to shore. “The majority of ships that have crashed this close to shore have been salvaged or dynamited. The only reason this one didn’t is that it ran aground on a navigational hazard.”
The Abandoned Shipwrecks Act of 1988 protects shipwrecks by making them the property of the state. While the Silver Spray is clearly a shipwreck, it’s not on the official registry, according to Plotner; it’s one of the things that he hopes a completed survey will change. That would prevent the city from building over it, Plotner says, unless they got permission from the state.
Lane has also talked to scientists at the Field Museum to see whether they’d be willing to study the ecology of the area. They expressed interest, he said, but they’re still figuring out what resources, if any, they’d be able to devote to such a project. (The scientists declined to be interviewed for this article.)
Almost all of Lane’s efforts to draw public attention to the Silver Spray have been through word of mouth: he hasn’t created a website for the shipwreck or the weekly tours he leads. Possibly the most tech-savvy thing he’s done has been to put the shipwreck on Google Maps. But when he tried to add the tours in a field asking for other information about the site, he says, someone from Google wrote back and told him that they couldn’t confirm online that the tours existed and therefore wouldn’t list them.
Lane does have another idea that could help protect the shipwreck: turning the area into an underwater preserve. There are none in Illinois, but Michigan has over a dozen of them, covering a total of more than 2,300 square miles of the Great Lakes. The preserve system was created in 1980 to protect shipwrecks, and the legislation surrounding it makes it a felony to disturb shipwrecks or their artifacts within a preserve. “If there’s one thing that I think historically has appealed to Chicago as a city,” Lane says, “it’s making sure we don’t get left behind in terms of civic pride.”
What we do have—or will soon, anyway—is something quite different. Last fall architectural firm Studio Gang broke ground on a new park not far from the Silver Spray, at Northerly Island, that will include a new concert pavilion, an oak savanna, wetlands, and a lagoon surrounded by a barrier reef. At the bottom of the lagoon will be a ship for divers to explore. “Two miles up the lakefront, they’re creating something that already exists here,” Lane says. He’s not opposed to the project, and says he respects Jeanne Gang’s work. At Morgan Shoal, though, Lane thinks that what’s already there should be preserved.
“We have, I think, as a culture kind of lost touch with the lake,” he says. “And Mayor Daley built seawalls which prohibit interaction with the lake. There’s no beautiful shore to meander. It’s just a concrete walk and a steel wall. We have some making up to do for that kind of thing. There’s nothing quite as compelling as Lake Michigan around here.”
Even without protected status for the shipwreck, it’s possible that the shoreline-protection plans could be altered to avoid building over it. The Park District’s Rob Rejman says that because the project is still at a concept phase, he’s open to modifying the plans. “If there are new ideas surrounding additional open water and uses for the shoal, we would love to talk about them, take it back to the community, and see what other good ideas could be brought to the table,” he says.
The idea has been discussed before, at community meetings in 2003 and 2004 after the project was first introduced. As Robin Kaufman, a Hyde Park activist who was on the Park Advisory Council at the time, recalls it, “They had a couple token meetings, but the design and the plan was already there.” She says that only a handful of people attended the meetings, which weren’t well advertised, but remembers clearly that there was no community support for the plan.
“Most everybody had concerns,” Kaufman said. “I don’t think anybody wanted it. Nobody wanted to give up Pebble Beach. I’m not sure that anybody knew how interesting the shoal was for exploring.”
The most current version of the plan does, in fact, include a pebble beach—along with sand dunes, a sandy beach, a lagoon, wetlands, and a small prairie. But Rejman emphasizes that nothing is final yet, and Lane thinks that’s encouraging news.
“I’m not at all superstitious, nor do I believe in unseen forces,” he says. “But I’m happy to engage in the idea that they’ve been trying to cover this thing over for a hundred years and they’ve failed for a reason: it shouldn’t be done.”