19th Century Shipwreck Found in Lake Michigan with Clues Given by Newspaper Clippings

The Michigan Shipwreck Research Association discovered an intact shipwreck after 138 years

<p>Michigan Shipwreck Research Association/Facebook</p> The 19th Century Ship Milwaukee

Michigan Shipwreck Research Association/Facebook

The 19th Century Ship Milwaukee

A ship that sunk almost 140 years ago was recently discovered “remarkably intact” in Lake Michigan.

On Saturday, the Michigan Shipwreck Research Association (MSRA) announced the discovery of the existing wreck of a steamship named Milwaukee in a news release on Facebook. The ship collided with another ship in 1886 and sank 360 feet below the water’s surface, about 40 miles off the Holland, Mich. shoreline, according to the group.

Since there were no photographs, historical newspaper clippings about the accident helped pinpoint the location of the ship, explained underwater explorer and historian Valerie van Heest, who developed the search grid.

The 135-foot ship was first discovered via a remote-operated vehicle (ROV) side-scan sonar in June 2023. Then, during the MSRA’s annual film festival this past week, the association announced their discovery to a live audience of over 300 attendees.

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

"Visibility was excellent," ROV pilot Jack van Heest added. "We saw the forward mast still standing as the ROV headed down to the bottom."

<p>Michigan Shipwreck Research Association/Facebook</p> Muskegon, Mich. port in 1880s.

Michigan Shipwreck Research Association/Facebook

Muskegon, Mich. port in 1880s.

The Milwaukee was first commissioned in 1868 and originally had three decks, one of which was for passengers, while the remaining two were for freight. However, in 1873, after the Wall Street panic, the Milwaukee was one of many Great Lake ships used for cargo, including lumber.

A decade later, Lyman Gates Mason bought the ship and converted it to transport his company's lumber. “[He] 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,” said former Holland City Council member Craig Rich.

On July 9, 1886, the Milwaukee was en route to transport Mason’s lumber—that is, until it collided with the Hickox, per MLive. "But the old superstition that bad things happen in threes would haunt the captains of both ships that night," wrote the MSRA.

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<p>Michigan Shipwreck Research Association/Facebook</p> Lyman Gates Mason

Michigan Shipwreck Research Association/Facebook

Lyman Gates Mason

Due to wildfires nearby in Wisconsin, smoke saturated the air and caused the eventual collision, which led Milwaukee Captain Armstrong and Hickox Captain O'Day to the dangerous path.

“Dennis Harrington, the lookout on the Milwaukee, first spotted the lights from the other vessel. He notified (the Milwaukee’s) Captain Armstrong immediately. Captain O’Day of the Hickox saw the same thing,” read the MSRA statement. The two captains were required by navigational rules to slow down, steer right and sound their steam whistles out of precaution.

Despite the requirements, neither captain slowed down the ships “because visibility was generally fine," but then minutes later, "a thick fog rolled in, rendering them both blind."

Related: Father and Daughter Discover Long-Lost Shipwreck Connected to Deadliest Fire in U.S. History

<p>Michigan Shipwreck Research Association/Facebook</p> The Milwaukee ship

Michigan Shipwreck Research Association/Facebook

The Milwaukee ship

The Hickox captain then made a turn and attempted to pull his steam whistle, but the chain broke. Soon, the Hickox collided with the side of the Milwaukee. Captain O’Day then headed below deck and noticed the water pouring into the ship. He then blew a distress signal to alert Captain Armstrong and “ordered the pumps turned on.”

Before the Milwaukee sank, all the ship's crew members safely boarded the Hickox. Two hours after the initial crash, the Milwaukee sank to the bottom of Lake Michigan.

There were no fatalities in this shipwreck, but both captains had their licenses temporarily revoked.

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