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Maritime History

Excerpted from the Final Environmental Impact Statement / Management Plan.

The following excerpt describes Thunder Bay's important place in Great Lakes maritime history. For a list of specific historic subjects, go directly to the Thunder Bay Maritime History Topic List.

In its role as an impediment to navigation, a shelter from powerful storms, and a destination for sailors, the Thunder Bay region has accumulated an impressive array of shipwrecks over the past two centuries. Virtually all types of vessels employed on the open lakes regularly passed along this important trade route, and most vessel types are represented in the region's shipwreck collection. These vessels were engaged at the time of their loss, or at some point during their careers, in nearly every kind of trade. The vessels, therefore, link the Thunder Bay region to Great Lakes commerce to an extent that may be difficult to equal elsewhere.

Alpena Harbor c. 1880
A bird's-eye view of the City of Alpena in 1880, including lumber docks to the left of the mouth of the Thunder Bay River and log booms to the right of the river.

The Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary will focus on understanding the region's "maritime cultural landscape." A cultural landscape is a geographic area including both cultural and natural resources, coastal environments, human communities, and related scenery that is associated with historic events, activities, or people. In other words, while the shipwrecks of the Thunder Bay region are the most obvious underwater cultural resource, the sanctuary will put the shipwrecks in the larger context of the region's lighthouses, lifesaving stations, shipwreck salvage operations, and maritime economic activities.

The maritime history of the Thunder Bay region is characterized by the use of, and dependence upon, natural resources. These resources include animal furs, fisheries, forests, farmland, and limestone. The first recorded use of natural resources for transportation, food supplies, and recreation in Thunder Bay was by Native Americans during the Woodland period. European activity probably originated with the efforts of Native Americans and French traders to locate and trap beaver during the 1600s.

Trading and supply boats routinely passed Thunder Bay on their way to outposts at Mackinaw, Sault Ste. Marie, and Green Bay. In 1679, LaSalle's GRIFFON became the first major European vessel to pass by Thunder Bay, and many others were to follow. The need to transport supplies to northern frontier posts stimulated construction of small brigs, sloops, and schooners. Thunder Bay accumulated a large collection of shipwrecks because of its strategic location along shipping lanes, and because the bay and nearby islands provided shelter for vessels during inclement weather.

Thunder Bay Maritime History Topic List
The following links provide additional information about the maritime history of the Thunder Bay region. Where applicable, reference is made to specific shipwrecks known or believed to be located in Thunder Bay. If information on these vessels is available elsewhere on this website, they will appear as a bright blue link. Please note that clicking on such a link will open a new browser window.

Prehistory and Native American History

Settlement and Early Transportation

Lighthouses and Life-Saving Stations

Vessel Types

Economic Activities:

Agricultural Products


Foreign Trade

Fur Trade

Lumber Industry

Mineral Trade

Shipwreck Salvage