137-Year-Old Shipwreck Located In Lake Michigan

137-Year-Old Shipwreck Located In Lake Michigan March 26, 2024Leave a comment

Shipwreck found by the Michigan Shipwreck Research Association

Explorers with the Michigan Shipwreck Research Association (MSRA) this weekend announced the discovery of a nearly 140-year-old shipwreck located with the help of old newspaper clippings.

The "remarkably intact" steamship Milwaukee sank under 360 feet of water in Lake Michigan about 40 miles from Holland, Mich., when it was rammed by another boat in 1886.

“This marks the 19th shipwreck our team has found off the shores of West Michigan” said MSRA co-founder Valerie van Heest, who coordinated the search with her husband Jack van Heest. The announcement was made in front of a live audience at the Knickerbocker Theater in Holland, at their annual film festival.

The Milwaukee was discovered in June 2023 using side-scan sonar, and the Van Heests worked along with others through the summer to film the shipwreck using a specially developed remote operated vehicle (ROV) and confirm the ship's identity.

According to MSRA, the 135-foot Milwaukee began its 18-year career as a passenger steamer commissioned by The Northern Transportation Company of Ohio. With three decks — one for passengers and two for freight — the ship spent 10 years ferrying settlers and settlement supplies west from Ogdensburg, N.Y., to Chicago, Ill., via Lake Erie and Lake Ontario.

But after the expansion of rail lines in 1880, such steamships became inefficient for their original purpose. The Milwaukee was one of many passenger steamships converted for cargo by removing upper-level passenger cabins to accommodate more freight. The Milwaukee was converted in 1881 at Port Huron, Mich., and began a new career on Lake Michigan. 

The Milwaukee was purchased by lumberman Lyman Gates Mason in 1883. At the time he registered the ship, documents indicated it had only one deck, suggesting it had been converted a second time, but there were no photographs or other documents detailing the conversion.

“But it was newspaper accounts of the sinking that provided the clues we needed to locate the shipwreck,” said Valerie van Heest.

On July 9, 1888, the Milwaukee was en route back to Muskegon after dropping off a load of lumber. A similar ship, the C. Hickox, left Muskegon that evening for Chicago with a full load of lumber for a different company. The lake was "calm," but smoke from wildfires in Wisconsin was blowing in.

At around midnight, both ships were on a collision course off Holland. The Milwaukee's lookout, Dennis Harrington, spotted the lights on the Hickox and notified Capt. Armstrong. Capt. O’Day of the Hickox spotted the Milwaukee at around the same time.

"Navigational rules were specific: both ships had to slow down, each had to steer to starboard (right) to avoid a collision, and each had to blast their steam whistle to signal their course change," MSRA said. "But the old superstition that bad things happen in threes would haunt the captains of both ships that night. Neither Captain slowed down because visibility was generally fine, but suddenly a thick fog rolled in rendering them both blind."

O'Day quickly turned the Hickox, but when he tried to sound the steam whistle, the pull chain broke. Armstrong, unable to see the Hickox and not hearing a whistle, "froze." When the Hickox was nearly upon the Milwaukee, Armstrong tried to make a turn, but the ship was rammed.

Armstrong sounded a distress signal, and the crews created a "canvas jacket," stretching the sail over the damaged side of the ship to slow the water intake.

Another steamer, the City of New York, arrived in response to the distress signal, and, along with the Hickox, pulled alongside the Milwaukee and rigged ropes to try to keep it afloat.

Their efforts were unsuccessful, and the ship sank. Everyone on board safely made it aboard the Hickox.

“News accounts of the accident, as well as the study of water currents, led us to the Milwaukee after only two days searching,” said Neel Zoss, who spotted the ship on the side-scan sonar.

“Visibility was excellent” said Jack van Heest, who piloted the ROV. “We saw the forward mast still standing as the ROV headed down to the bottom.” The ship remained upright, facing northeast, as it was the night it sank.

The explorers saw for the first time the ship's final conversion, which was not documented in historical photos.

“In studying the video,” said Craig Rich, “we realized that Lyman Gates Mason, who owned the Milwaukee, had made both the pilothouse and the aft cabin smaller in order to maximize the amount of lumber the ship could carry on each run.”

Both O'Day and Armstrong temporarily lost their licenses after the sinking, for not slowing down as they should have.

"Slowing down in the face of danger may be the most important lesson this shipwreck can teach," MSRA said.

Story via TMX