Ironton proves value of marine sanctuary

It’s hard to believe the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary has been around for almost 23 years now.

Time has a way of passing quickly, I guess.

And, while today the sanctuary is a vital and well-respected research, tourism, and educational part of our community, that wasn’t the case, initially.

Initially, talk of a federally designated sanctuary instilled fear, resentment, frustration, and anger among many of the townsfolk. Primarily, fishermen were concerned about losing their ability to fish the waters of Thunder Bay — worried the “feds” would police those waters and keep fishermen well away from any of the many underwater wrecks that littered the bay’s bottom.

In the early days, there were very few of us who supported the sanctuary concept. I thought the concept held great potential for the region and, from the outset, as publisher of The Alpena News, I lent the newspaper’s backing and support to the idea. To this day, I still remember some very intense complaints from the staff of then-Gov. John Engler to my office, critical of my support for the designation.

I believed, however, that the state and federal government could work together to protect the bay’s shipwrecks, just as time has proven to be the case.

In the end, it took years of research, meetings, negotiations, and education before the public began to warm up to the idea.

Ultimately, on Oct. 7, 2000, the sanctuary was recognized as the country’s 13th national marine sanctuary, and, at that time, the only freshwater sanctuary in the U.S.

I was remembering those days with the recent national news of the discovery of the sailing ship Ironton in the sanctuary. In yet another of many mysteries that Lake Huron holds, the Ironton for over a century lay at the lake’s bottom — unknown to anyone but the fish which swam around it.

Historians knew that, on Sept. 26, 1894, the Ironton and Ohio collided in the dark, ultimately sinking both vessels. All 16 crew members of the Ohio were able to get into lifeboats and were saved. There were only two survivors from the Ironton, while five fellow members of their crew, including the captain, perished that night.

Because the Ohio sank quickly but the Ironton did not for quite some time later, the eventual resting spot where it went down never was known — until recently, thanks to the help of renowned researcher Robert Ballard and his crew from Ocean Exploration Trust.

Again, because of its national marine status and because of the cold freshwater of Lake Huron, shipwrecks tend to be well-preserved there. For underwater archaeologists, Thunder Bay and Lake Huron offer a wealth of adventure.

Ultimately, it was a combination of research entities — local sanctuary folks, Ballard’s team, U.S. Coast Guard members, Michigan officials, Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory, Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping, and college students from Northwestern Michigan College and the University of North Carolina who did the detective work and found the Ironton.

In an amazing testament to why the sanctuary is so important, the wreck today is in such great shape it seems as if the boat could be raised and set off again into the sunset.

Discoveries like that of the Ironton are why I felt right from the beginning the sanctuary designation would be an asset to the region.

Having the national marine sanctuary here has proven to be a huge asset for Alpena and Northeast Michigan. Discoveries like the Ironton make that statement all the more valid.

I’m proud area residents eventually warmed to the sanctuary concept.

Change isn’t easy, but here is a classic case where change has made a huge difference for all who call Northeast Michigan home.

Bill Speer recently retired as the publisher and editor of The News. He can be reached at bspeer@thealpenanews.com.


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