Shipwrecks of Grand Traverse Bay: The Charles Frank

This image of The Charles Frank was taken by dipping a camera underwater from the surface. (Chris Roxburgh via Facebook)

By Aaron Voogt

September 28, 2022

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 second story in the series—the story of a ship that went up in flames.

The Charles Frank

At the turn of the 20th century, the Great Lakes region had a booming fishing industry. And with the second Industrial Revolution, commercial fishing boats were changing. Sails gave way to motors, and small fishing boats evolved into much larger, enclosed vessels called fish tugs.

Gill-net fishing was the fish tug’s bread and butter. A large net was suspended vertically into the water, and when a fish would swim into it, it would get caught by its gills. The nets were so effective, the method would eventually require heavy regulations to prevent overfishing. The fish tug later fell into obscurity, and has since been replaced with more modern commercial fishing boats. 

The Charles Frank—also known as the “Elmwood wreck” for the shipwreck’s proximity to Elmwood Charter Township, just northwest of Traverse City—was a 30-foot-long wooden fish tug built in 1928. Originally steam-powered, it was upgraded with an oil engine two years later. 

After nearly 30 years traveling the Great Lakes, the Charles Frank was in rough shape. On Nov. 8, 1957, the fish tug was anchored in Grand Traverse Bay when it went up in flames. Whether it was intentional or accidental remains unclear, but as the ship burned, its flaming wreckage sank into the shallow waters. 

To add insult to injury, it was later tangled up in another boat’s fishing net and inadvertently dragged to its present location—an ironic end for an old fishing boat to become caught in the net of its successor. 

The wreck is only about 500 feet from the shore, and very close to the Elmwood Marina—making it great for newbie divers. At 20-40 feet deep, you’ll find what’s left of the wooden hull and frame. Covered in algae and teeming with underwater life, it’s a favorite for photographers both above and below water.

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.


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