By Jennifer Young
On a July 15, 1914, a group of University of Chicago students waited near the Lake Michigan shore for a passenger steamer named Silver Spray to ferry them to the steel mills of Gary. They planned to spend the day touring and learning about the steel industry. The Silver Spray never arrived to pick up those students, having run aground on a 425 million-year-old outcrop of Silurian dolomite, more familiarly known to Chicagoans as Morgan Shoal.
The shoal is an ancient coral reef compressed to hard rock. Without much in the way of depth technology, the unwitting steamer ventured too far into shallow waters and ran aground on the shoal, where it remains today, only 100 yards from Chicago’s shoreline.
The Silver Spray was 109 feet long and featured a seven-man crew, including its captain. According to reports, the steamer’s cook was preparing stew when it ran aground. The captain took his post on the bridge and informed his crew that they were free to leave, but they all preferred to stay on board to learn first-hand the fate of their vessel. The crew remained for three days while attempts were made to pull the ship from the shallows. When all methods of recovery were exhausted, the crew departed to the safety of the shores.
As the waves continued to pound the Silver Spray, it broke into pieces and onlookers from the beach witnessed its boiler catch fire. At the time, beachcombers gathered the Silver Spray’s salvage as it washed ashore. The boiler, however, remained wedged onto the shoal itself and can still be viewed below and above the water line today. Many divers come to explore the area of the wreck because it’s so easily accessible and is also a unique habitat for underwater life.
Fortunately, no one lost their life aboard the Silver Spray when it sank. The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum estimates that roughly 30,000 people have lost their lives in ships that sank on the lakes; however, it also admits that the precise number of shipwrecks (recorded since the 17th century) is unknown. About 1,500 ships have gone down in Lake Michigan.
While it has proved treacherous for watercraft, Morgan Shoal is a rich ecosystem. According to National Geographic, “amphipods, isopods, chironomids, oligocheates, and other invertebrates” make their home in and on the crevices of the shoal in view of the Silver Spray’s indomitable iron boiler that remains embedded in the rock more than 100 years since it first sank there.