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Michigan Town Rebrands Itself as Shipwreck Capital of the Great Lakes

Passengers of the Lady Michigan look down through its glass bottom in hopes of spotting one of the area’s many shipwrecks (photo: Veronica Volk)

By Veronica Volk

Alpena, Michigan used to be a bustling port on Lake Huron. But since the decline of its major industry, residents of the small town have shifted their focus to what's beneath the water - over 200 shipwrecks along their shoreline.

Wedged between Fletcher Street and the waterfront in Alpena, Mich., is a long row of warehouses. It used to be a paper mill, but these days it's home to Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

Inside one of the buildings is a little visitor’s center, with art and artifacts and interactive games that broadcast old sailors' songs to kids playing pirates.

But the main attraction is offshore. Hundreds of shipwrecks lie at the bottom of this part of Lake Huron.

Down inside the glass bottom charter boat the Lady Michigan, passengers explore shallow wrecks through clear panes lining the hull.

Brandy Kozlowski squints into the sunken, splintered deck of the Shamrock -- a wooden steam barge that sank in 1905. She grew up here, but left Michigan years ago to find a job. Back visiting family, she says the place has changed a lot. 

“The marine sanctuary, it’s all brand new, everything on that side of town is new," she says. "It’s good for the area. It really needs a boost in the arm.”

This area has collected shipwrecks for centuries, due to heavy shipping traffic, shallow water and the storms that give Thunder Bay its name. 

But tourism has grown since Alpena was designated the first – and so far only – fresh water national marine sanctuary by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Joe Sobczak is the owner of Thunder Bay Scuba. He used to work in the shipping industry, but he’s always loved diving and the access it gives him to these massive time capsules.

“It’s like being able to go through Thomas Edison’s lab without the plexi-glass windows and be able to open the drawers and look at the pencils that he used.”

Sobczak gets most of his business from out of towners. But he isn’t sure tourism jobs are enough to keep people, especially young people, from moving away.

“They aren't the same as a blue-collar industrial job. You don't have the benefits; you don't have the pay scale."

Still, Sobczak thinks it’s the best way to move Alpena forward, and not just for dive shops and charter boats.

Jeff Gray is the sanctuary’s superintendent. He says, he’s seen a lot of businesses adopt this new identity.

"The branding for our community is the sanctuary of the Great Lakes and it means more than just Thunder Bay but that's kind of the anchor. This is the place where you can kind of come find your sanctuary.

Downtown is full of shops that have adopted the shipwreck theme. Cabin Creek Coffee has a maritime blend, and Scoops Ice Cream offers floats and sundaes named after popular wrecks. And new businesses are coming in – including the first waterfront hotel on Thunder Bay River, right across from sanctuary headquarters. 

The success of Alpena’s rebranding has other communities along the Great Lakes applying for similar national marine sanctuary status from the federal government.