Divers explore The Metropolis (Chris Roxburgh via Facebook)
Divers explore The Metropolis (Chris Roxburgh via Facebook)

Taking a boat ride along the coast of Grand Traverse Bay, there are some sights you expect to see: Sandy beaches. Cherry orchards and wineries. Tourists enjoying the water. But what you might not expect are all the sights you could find below the water’s surface. 

TRAVERSE CITY—Grand Traverse Bay is home to dozens of known shipwrecks, spanning from the early 1800s to the late 1900s. Now a popular vacation area, the bay was once a hub for commerce and maritime trade—and like most trade routes, this one has a storied past.

Check back every Wednesday as we explore history in Shipwrecks of Grand Traverse Bay. This is the first story in the series—the story of a ship that just couldn’t catch a break.

The Metropolis

Divers explore The Metropolis (Chris Roxburgh via Facebook)

When Captain Duncan Corbett set off from Elk Rapids on Nov. 26, 1886, he was hoping for one more job before winter hit the Great Lakes. 

He and his crew set out from Grand Traverse Bay’s east side, headed for Chicago with a load of crude iron and lumber. His vessel, the Metropolis, was a 125-foot long, two-masted wooden schooner. A typical cargo transport of the time, these were common sights on the Great Lakes.

But the Metropolis didn’t make it to Chicago—in fact, it never even left the bay. 

As snowflakes started to fall that evening, one can only imagine what was going through Corbett’s mind. Late into the night, a snowstorm blew over the water. Around 3 a.m., the ship ran aground off Old Mission Point, which splits the bay into its distinctive halves. 

Despite the cold, the crew made it to dry land. Corbett called for a tugboat from Cheboygan, but after two days of struggle, everyone had deserted the Metropolis. It stayed beached as December rolled in, along with sheets of ice that formed across the bay. 

With the dueling pressures of ice and water battering against it, the Metropolis was eventually pulled down into deep waters. 

Built in Cleveland, Ohio in 1857, the ship seemed to be destined for trouble. It ran aground in its first year—an experience it would have several times in its 29-year lifespan. In 1869, it struck the William T. Groves on the Detroit River. In the 1870s, it lost a mast, damaged its sails, and struck a reef. In 1883, the ship washed ashore, the crew abandoning cargo to make it to safety. 

Just two months before the Metropolis sank in Grand Traverse Bay, Captain Duncan Corbett’s brother, John Corbett, fell through a hatch in the ship to the cargo area below, with several pigs (or ingots) of iron falling on top of him. He broke his leg.

Following the sinking of the Metropolis, Duncan Corbett purchased a new schooner: the three-masted Waukesha. On November 12, 1896, while carrying a load of salt and apples, a storm overtook the Waukesha. Corbett attempted to find shelter in Muskegon Harbor, but the strong winds wouldn’t let him in. Drifting south fast, Corbett set the anchor a mile out. 

Little is known of how the ship actually sank, but when debris started to drift to shore, its fate was unmistakable. Captain Corbett died in the storm, along with five of his crew members. Only one crew member survived, rescued in a weakened, unresponsive state. 

The stories of the Metropolis and the Waukesha are not those of cursed ships or captains, but of the very real dangers many Great Lakes sailors faced at the time. 

By the way, the Metropolis still lies below the waters east of Old Mission Point, split into two sections—one shallow and one deeper. All that’s left is the keel (the central beam running across the bottom of the ship) and the ribs. On a sunny day when the water is clear, you might see the skeletal remains of Metropolis—a haunting message from a time that’s far removed from the Grand Traverse Bay we know today.

For more information on shipwrecks in the area, the Grand Traverse Bay Underwater Preserve, which works to preserve these historic shipwrecks and promote education about them, is a great resource. Click here for information and locations of many more shipwrecks.