Photograph by Joe Oliver

Valerie van Heest has written and directed several exciting documentary films about shipwrecks recently discovered in Lake Michigan off the shores of Western Michigan. Each documentary details the life, loss, search and discovery of a shipwreck that has unique role in Great Lake’s maritime history. Two of Valerie's films have had debut showings at the prestigious Waterfront Film Festival in Saugatuck, Michigan: "Icebound Found" and "She Died a Hard Death.
Valerie can present live versions of these productions at her speaking engagments.


Lady Elgin

Lost on the Lady Elgin
Written and Directed by Valerie and Jack van Heest

Lightning tore through the slate-black sky above lower Lake Michigan on Saturday, September 8, 1860, as the palatial sidewheel steamer Lady Elgin as she lumbered north from Chicago through raging seas . The vessel’s journey ended abruptly when the schooner Augusta collided with the steamer, piercing a gaping and fatal wound in the steamer’s side. Within minutes, the Lady Elgin foundered, forcing her terrified passengers and crew into the churning maelstrom. Over three hundred people, mainly Irish-Americans from Milwaukee’s Third Ward, perished in the disaster—the worst maritime tragedy on the open waters of the Great Lakes.
One hundred twenty-nine years after the disaster, the Lady Elgin became headline news again when the discovery of her wreck incited a legal battle over ownership,
Award-winning documentary producer and author of the book Lost on the Lady Elgin, Valerie van Heest narrates this documentary that takes the viewer back to the golden age of passenger travel on the Great Lakes and a petrifying night as four hundred souls fought for their lives, then underwater to explore the wreck and its many significant artifacts.

Thomas Hume


Unsolved Mysteries: The Shipwreck Thomas Hume
Written and Directed by Valerie and Jack van Heest

On May 21, 1891, the lumber schooner Thomas Hume and its crew of seven sailed out of Chicago, into a spring storm, never to be seen again. The vessel’s owners, Charles Hackley and Thomas Hume of Muskegon, Michigan, could not believe the sturdy lumber hooker could be overcome by rough water. Perhaps a freighter hit it, sank it, then steamed north. Or maybe the crew stole the Hume, repainted it, and sailed away under a different name. The disappearance of the Thomas Hume lingered as one of the great unsolved mysteries of the Great Lakes.
More than a century after its disappearance, the discovery of the wreck of the Thomas Hume solved the mystery of its disappearance. However, the collection of shoes, clothing, jewelry, coins, and tools found inside generated even more questions. An archaeological investigation s attempted to solve the riddles posed by the shipwreck. After survey dives, historical research, and detective-like reasoning, the team pieced together not only the Thomas Hume’s career, but how its crew lived, worked, and died on the lake.


A Tale of two schooners


A Tale of Two Schooners
Written and Directed by Valerie Olson van Heest/Produced byJack van Heest

Nearly 25,000 schooners graced the Great Lakes during the age of sail.  In 1868 and 1869, two of those vessels, both small, sixty-foot two-masted schooners, both built mid-nineteenth century, both operated out of the twin cities of Benton Harbor and St. Joseph, Michigan, and both carrying consigned cargos across Lake Michigan to their home port sank in tragic accidents.  Coincidentally, both would be located exactly 140 years after their disappearance and just a few miles from each other in southeast Lake Michigan during a joint venture expedition by nationally acclaimed author Clive Cussler, his team from the National Underwater Marine Agency and Michigan Shipwreck Research Associates. These shipwrecks are a reminder of the perils faced by the crews and the economic hardships faced by business owners while doing this rather ordinary task of shipping goods across the lakes.

Alvin Clark

Raising the Alvin Clark
Written and Directed by Valerie Olson van Heest/Produced by Jack van Heest

In 1969 a team of adventurous men and women involved in the relatively new sport of scuba diving accomplished what had never been done before on an amateur basis: Raising a century-old fully intact schooner, this one from the depths of Lake Michigan. Through archival underwater film footage of the shipwreck and the raising of the vessel, this program will explore the amazing accomplishment of the visionary and dedicated divers led by Wisconsin man, Frank Hoffman, whose efforts provided the world a glimpse, if only for twenty-five years, back to an age of schooners on the inland seas.


Icebound Found

Icebound Found! The Ordeal of the S.S. Michigan
Written and Directed by Valerie Olson van Heest/Produced by Robert Gadbois

"Difficulties are just things to overcome after all." This quote, made famous by Captain Ernest Shackleton when he and his crew of 27 returned from Antarctica safely six months after his ship Endurance sank, could certainly have been the sentiment of Captain Prindeville as a similar drama played out on the ice-encrusted Lake Michigan. In 1885 Prindeville and his 29-man crew on the S.S. Michigan became icebound off West Michigan during one of the worst winter storms in history. After 40 days their ship was crushed by the ice and sank, forcing them onto the ice-covered lake. With stamina and perseverance, all 30 people made it safely to shore in this local tale of endurance!  It would also take endurance for the members of Michigan Shipwreck Research Associates to explore the intact remains of this historic vessel, 275 beneath Lake Michigan, and learn first-hand just how difficulties can be overcome. 

She Died a Hard Death


She Died a Hard Death:
The Sinking of the Hennepin

Written and Directed by Valerie Olson van Heest/Produced by Robert Gadbois
Associate Producer William Lafferty
Produced through a grant from the Michigan Humanties Council

When the tugboat Lotus moved slowly up the Grand River in Ferrysburg Michigan on the sultry evening of August 18, 1927, it was immediately apparent something was wrong. She had left the day prior towing the barge Hennepin and was returning without it. The Hennepin’s Captain Ole Hansen, who had taken refuge on the tug, shouted across to Construction Materials Corporation employees waiting at the Dock: “We lost her boys. She died a hard death.” Seventy-nine years later Michigan Shipwreck Research Associates discovered the ship that Hansen lost in 230’ of water off South Haven Michigan, one of the most significant vessels ever to sail the Great Lakes.



Planes Trains and Ships

The Discovery of the Ann Arbor No. 5
Written and Directed by Valerie Olson van Heest/Produced by Robert Gadbois

When Michigan Shipwreck Research Associates (MSRA), nationally acclaimed author Clive Cussler, and his organization the National Underwater Marine Agency (NUMA), teamed up to search for Northwest Flight 2501, a DC-4 airliner that crashed on Lake Michigan in 1950, they made a surprising discovery.  In 160 feet of water eight miles off South Haven lay the remains of a huge steel ship seemingly impaled into the lake bottom.  Just how this vessel, the Ann Arbor No 5, ended up embedded on the lake bottom of after ferrying rail cars across Lake Michigan for six decades proved as much a mystery as the plane crash itself.  Join MSRA as they dive the wreck, revisit the magnificent history of railroad car ferry service on the Great Lakes, and ultimately meet the man who was on the Ann Arbor No 5 when it sank!

A Freshwater Monsoon

Freshwater Monsoon - 35 minutes
Written and Directed by Valerie Olson van Heest/Produced by Robert Gadbois

On a violently stormy November day on Lake Michigan more than a century ago, a small schooner loaded with slabs of freshly milled lumber wallowed in the trough of the huge seas as her captain and crew struggled to keep their ship afloat and their lives intact. More than a century later, Michigan Shipwreck Research Associates attempts to identify the wreck of a small schooner off Saugatuck, Michigan. Through painstaking research and several dangerous dives to this deep site, MSRA explores not only the wreck, but the lumbering industry that sustained Michigan in its early years as a State as well as the careers of two ordinary vessels whose work often found them along the  western shores of Michigan. The journey ultimately leads to a surprising conclusion when it is realized that the schooner was swallowed by...a freshwater monsoon.

Flight 2501

The Disappearance of Flight 2501 - 50 minutes
Written and Directed by Valerie Olson van Heest/Produced by Robert Gadbois

Fifty-five years ago, on the evening of June 23, 1950, Northwest Airlines Flight 2501 took off from LaGuardia airport for a stopover in Minneapolis en route to Seattle. As Captain Robert Lind passed over Battle Creek, MI preparing for the Lake Michigan crossing, he  requested  an altitude drop to avoid turbulence of a thunderstorm over the lake, but was denied. That transmission was the last that was heard from the DC-4. The next morning scattered airplane debris and human remains floating in Lake Michigan confirmed the tragedy--the plane and all 58 persons aboard was gone, making this the worst passenger aviation disaster of its time. Since 2001, members of Michigan Shipwreck Research Associates have been working with author  Clive Cussler, to attempt to find the DC-4.

H. C. Akeley

The Discovery of the Shipwreck H.C. Akeley
Written and Directed by Valerie Olson van Heest/Produced by Robert Gadbois

On a cold and stormy morning in October 1883, 18 crewmen aboard a Grand Haven built cargo steamer heading from Chicago to Buffalo with a load of corn, struggled to save their lives and their ship and a foundering tugboat. Each man, while faced with his own mortality, was forced to make a fateful decision. Twelve men lived to tell the tale of tragic storm and six men went to their watery graves with their ship the H. C. Akeley.  Over a century after this disaster, local explorers, Michigan Shipwreck Research Associates, in pursuit of lost shipwrecks off the shores of West Michigan discovered a wreck in 275 feet of water, 15 miles off Saugatuck, Michigan. Through the first video images acquired of this very deep shipwreck shot by scuba divers and remote operated vehicles, MSRA tells the tale of what happened to those 18 crewmembers in the final, fateful moments aboard this doomed vessel.



The Verano: Porthole to the Past
Written and Directed By Robert Gadbois
Produced through a grant from the Michigan Humanties Council

On a clear and sunny day in August, 1946, a yacht called the Verano  sank  two miles north of  South Haven, Michigan just minutes after the Coast Guard arrived at the scene to attempt a rescue. Within three days, the bodies of the three crewmen were found washed ashore. Surprisingly, two of the three had their life jackets on backwards. Soon after the life boat was found upside down with the oars still in place.The rediscovery of the Verano in 1995 by local divers opened  a “Porthole to the Past”.  The mysteries surrounding   the Verano’s sinking resurfaced. In an attempt to find closure to this tragedy, members of Michigan Shipwreck Research Associates under the auspices of the Southwest Michigan Underwater Preserve tracked down and interviewed many individuals associated with   the vessel, and they surveyed the wreck site for clues to the cause of the sinking.  In the process they explored the times that this ship sailed through, from the roaring 20’s to the depression, and on to the Post WWII boon.