49th Street Shipwreck

On July 15, 1914, two hundred University of Chicago students stood on the shore of Lake Michigan to watch a ship pull in. Or perhaps they were on board the ship itself–nautical history lends itself to fantastic lore. Either way, the unfortunate Silver Spray was never to reach her port.

Run aground in the water of Morgan Shoal, a shallow expanse of botanically lush water which extends over half a mile between 45th and 51st Streets, the 109-foot vessel resisted all rescue attempts. After three days of struggle and a safe evacuation, she tipped. She may have caught fire. Since that summer, the Silver Spray has rested underwater off the shore of 49th Street, tranquilly preserved by the lake’s fresh water.

This was the story told last Saturday at the Hyde Park Historical Society by long-time Hyde Park resident Greg Lane, who swims in Lake Michigan every day and harbors (pun intended) a kind of boyish enthusiasm that would more likely be expected of his grade school son. Lane was intrigued by the Silver Spray’s boiler, which is visible from shore, so one day he swam out to investigate.

“There’s nothing quite so enchanting as swimming along in the lake and then suddenly looking down and discovering a propellor that’s as tall as you are,” he says. Scuba diving is illegal off the shores of the lake (“It puts people in danger of enjoying Lake Michigan,” Lane quips), but this doesn’t stop him from spreading the gospel of the sunken ship. At 10am on most Sundays, Lane can be found guiding civilians on “shipwreck tours”–free-dives out and down to the corpse of the Silver Spray.

Shipwrecks in American waters are protected by the Abandoned Shipwrecks Act of 1987, created, essentially, to bring looters and abandoned booty within the realm of law. With no individuals to claim ownership, sunken vessels are given, by default, to the state. Lane expresses concern about protecting the wreck from municipal interference.  He wants people to be aware of, and to appreciate, the abandoned Silver Spray and its resting place on the shoal.

“Just like a historical building, it has a story to tell,” says Lane, a consciously modest and somewhat accidental spokesman for the wreck. Speaking to a full crowd in the Historical Society’s small space along Lake Park Avenue, his rhetoric  resembles a rallying cry to the amateur Hyde Park enthusiast. “I am now an underwater archaeologist,” he says with a smile. “That’s the great thing about this shipwreck. It’s the most accessible on Chicago shores, and it’s ours.”