'Hidden History of Lake St. Clair' film to highlight historical underwater towns

Underneath Lake St. Clair are two forgotten communities that were once an early settlement of the waterfront community. 

On February 15, the film called "The Hidden History of Lake St. Clair" will premiere highlighting the town of Belvidere just off the coast of Harrison Township and St. Felicity at L’Anse Creuse. 

Amanda Oparka, senior planner for Macomb County’s planning and economic development department said the county received a $79,000 grant from the State of Michigan Coastal Management Program, Water Resources Division, and EGLE. Along with additional funding from the National Coastal Zone Management to fund this project. 

They were able to film their findings of these two settlements through the Noble Odyssey Foundation. The foundation has done other films similar to this one such as the Coastal Shipwrecks Port Austin to Port Huron, Michigan

The documentary is directed by award-winning filmmaker and historian Robert Kreipke, known for his work in "The Curse of Oak Island", a TV show about two brothers trying to find the believed treasure on the island in Nova Scotia while avoiding the alleged curse. 

Oparka says the research began about six years ago when they heard about a statue that was found in the 1960s by a little girl who was swimming in the lake and felt something on her foot. The statue is now known as Our Lady of Sorrows. In the 1990s, there was some exploration of the lake where they found the former boundaries of St. Felicity. 

“After that, it kind of sat and no one talked about it,” Oparka says. But now, the search has resurfaced. She adds, that there’s not a ton of local knowledge about these settlements so this project gives the ability to learn about them. 

Jessika Hadash, a staff member at the Noble Odyssey Foundation says the county reached out to them to film this documentary. The foundation brings together research, resources, and youth to help out on projects like this film. She adds this wouldn’t be made possible without Captain Luke Clyburn, president of the foundation. 

Kids ages 11 to 18 years old helped take photos of the underwater settlements, Hadash says. 

“We brought the cadets out there and we did all kinds of work,” Hadash says. “Scanning surveys, operating sonars, taking underwater measurements and keeping track of where all these artifacts were being found.” 

The film came with its own set of challenges, Hadash says. In Michigan, diving is only possible during the warm months. Lake St. Clair is also very shallow, averaging about 11 feet in depth. 

“When you have new inexperienced divers, they have a tendency to kick up the mud on the bottom of the lake bed and you end up with a low visibility situation,” Hadash says. Low visibility makes it very difficult to get a clear picture of what’s down below. But with months of training in the pool during the winter, the cadets can mitigate this problem. 

Over the years, local communities knew something was under the water, they just hadn’t known what, Hadash says. 

Supplied / "The Hidden History of Lake St. Clair".

The History of the St. Felicity and Belvidere 

Much of the knowledge on both settlements was handwritten, so it’s hard to track what all was there, Hadash says.

St. Felicity was founded in 1829 after the land was deeded to Father Gabriel Richard. The settlement had a known church with a cemetery attached to it. It was also believed to have a bank and even its own currency. In 1855, the church and cemetery were swept under the waters of Lake St. Clair. 

Nearby St. Felicity, the town of Belvidere was founded in 1836 by James L. Conger. When Conger and his brother David came to Michigan and bought several acres of land near the mouth of the Clinton River, they formed the Belvedere Land Company. That same year, the land was surveyed and platted.  

For the next 20 years, Belvidere would flourish by having a general store, warehouse, docks for steamboats, and private homes. During that time, it was a popular place for young people to come visit. In 1837, the town founded a bank called The Bank of St. Clair. Conger was warned by Native Americans that the land would repeatedly go in and out of the water, but the advice was brushed off. By 1838, most of the town was completely submerged. Everyone flooded out of town and Conger was the last resident to live in Belvedere. 

When the shipping canals were dug up in Lake St. Clair to allow freighters to pass through, that changed the water levels and the shoreline, Oparka says. 

“The water levels were raised which caused these communities to be flooded out,” Oparka says. Luckily, even with these towns living underwater, they have not found any negative impacts on the environment of the lake. Much of the town's buildings were made out of wood, making it more natural to the lake's environment. 

The importance of local knowledge and the premier   

Today, there are some streets named after the lost town of Belvidere in Harrison Township. The sunken town is also honored through the Belvidere Bay which is known as “A Fisherman's Paradise.” 

“We hope people learn how great Lake St. Clair is,” Oparka says. “The film talks about communities but it also talks about how great of a resource we have here in Macomb County.” 

The research part of the film is hoping to inspire interest in learning about the local history of the county, Hadash says. We have a lot of cool hidden gems of history in our area and it’s impactful, she said. 

“Civilization follows the water,” Hadash says. “If you get enough research, we’ll start uncovering some fascinating aspects to our history on a global scale.”

Hadash adds that anytime you can get community members, especially kids out onto the lake and learning about the water and local history, you’re creating a future of environmental stewards. 

Captain Luke has impacted so many kids and it’s all through Great Lakes research, Hadash says.  

The doors for the premier of the film will open at 5:30 pm at the Macomb Community College Center for the Performing Arts located at 44575 Garfield Rd in Clinton Township. Tickets are on sale at their website. The money bought for tickets goes towards a fundraiser for the Noble Odyssey Foundation. 

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