Chris Chabot, a Michigan native turned California screenwriter, was a member of the Shannon expedition. He’d hooked up with Shannon after hearing him lecture in 1992. Shannon’s speech inspired Chabot to write a script about the Fitzgerald. Chabot has spent the past decade trying to get it produced. “The photograph from that 1994 expedition caused a big brouhaha,” he told me. “I had joined Shannon because he’s considered an expert on the Fitzgerald, and his work was what really got me thinking the script needed to be written in the first place.”
Chabot said that by the time of that expedition, he’d already been in contact with relatives of the deceased seamen. They’d heard about his work, and some of them were anxious about how the story would be treated. “But then I’d send them the script, and they were always really pleased with it, wanting to get involved and do whatever they could to help,” he said. But after the photograph and the buzz, I noticed in the media interviews that family members were shifting their views on things from one day to the next. First they were supporting each other, then there’d be a split.”
Chabot thought it best to keep a low profile until the furor died down. It dawned on him that no matter how he proceeded with his project, he probably couldn’t count on everyone’s approval. “Once I sell the thing, I’ll have only so much control, anyway,” he pointed out. “You have to be careful who you sell to, because they can do literally anything they want. The crew members, the story, it’s all in the public record. So I could write the script a certain way, featuring crew members and relatives and what have you, but once I sell the script, they could make it a gay musical with a dancing moose if they want.”
Chabot recently returned from a trip to Port Huron, Michigan, where he spent time with several ship captains who had experienced the same deadly storm
that sank the Fitz. (continued on page 36)
(continued from page 33) “The William Clay Ford and the Arthur Anderson were the ones that went out to look for the Fitzgerald that night,” said Chabot. “The pilot house of the William Clay Ford is now reassembled in a Detroit museum, and the captains showed me around the pilot house, showed me who would have been standing where, and guessed at what they might have been saying in the moments before the ship went down.”
Such conjecture—which is all you have when there are no survivors—is at the core of the persistent public intrigue over the Fitzgerald, along with her notoriety as the last major shipping disaster on the Great Lakes. And the extreme depth at which the Fitzgerald lies, out of reach of most explorers, keeps her mysterious. Shallower wrecks, although more accessible to divers, are also vulnerable to the ravages of storms, waves, and ice. Vessels deeper than one hundred feet are likely to be in excellent shape, but they’re not easily found. The deepest wrecks—vessels that came to rest more than 250 feet below the water’s surface—are, like the Fitz, effectively protected from most forms of human invasion.
Only the hardiest and most experienced scuba divers go deeper than 120 feet; deep diving requires sophisticated equipment and a special air mixture to combat the high pressure and limited visibility. Consequently, many historic and legendary vessels have yet to be discovered or visited. As sport divers become more comfortable in 150-to-250-foot depths, discoveries and exploration will continue to expand. But the divers who dare to go where it’s “too deep, too dark, too cold” aren’t likely to damage the wrecks. On the contrary, they have done more than anyone else, public or private, to preserve them.
The Fridley-based Great Lakes Shipwreck Preservation Society, for example, devotes itself to the discovery, preservation, and restoration of shipwrecks. “We’re more or less like a historical society,” said Robert Olson, the group’s president. “We don’t let Fort Snelling fall apart, and we shouldn’t let these wrecks fall apart.”
The group—which has about one hundred members, mostly divers—got its start in 1994, when a few local divers got together over the notion of resetting a piece of deck and stabilizing the hull of the Samuel P. Ely, a wreck partially lodged inside the breakwall in Agate Bay at Two Harbors. The well-preserved two-hundred-foot schooner, which sank in a storm in 1896, had been damaged during some Corps of Engineers work on the breakwall in 1991. “The hull was spreading, and we wanted to get it stabilized,” said Olson. “But we knew that for the state to hire a contractor to do the work would have cost a hundred thousand dollars. So a group of thirteen of us decided to go up and see what we could do. We did it in February so that we could set the winches on the ice and get by without a barge. It was incredible.”
The divers hauled up their own tools and borrowed what they didn’t own. A fellow diver convinced his employer, Le Jeune Steel, to contribute five steel rods, thirty-four feet long each, at cost. Jeff McMorrow, then director of the Two Harbors Historical Society and living in the historic lighthouse there, allowed the divers to flop at his place for the duration of the project. “All kinds of people helped out,” recalled Olson. “I don’t think we put out more than $150 cash. The rest was donated. That’s how the society began.”