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112 Year-Old Sunken Steamship Found in Lake Michigan

June 26, 2010

A wooden steamship that sank in Lake Michigan over 112 years ago has been discovered off the Milwaukee-area shoreline, and divers say the vessel appears to have been perfectly preserved by the cold, fresh waters.

Brendon Baillod, the president of the Wisconsin Underwater Archaeology Association, told the Associated press (AP) that finding the 300-foot-long L.R. Doty was important because it was the largest wooden ship that remained unaccounted for.

“It’s the biggest one I’ve been involved with,” said Baillod, who has taken part in about a dozen such finds. “It was really exhilarating.”

Baillod said the Doty was carrying a cargo of corn from South Chicago to Ontario, Canada in October 1898 when it sailed into a terrible storm.  Along with snow and sleet, there were heavy winds that whipped up waves of up to 30 feet.

The Doty should have been able to stay afloat during the weather.  The ship was only five years old, and the 300-foot wooden behemoth’s hull was reinforced with steel arches.

However, Baillod said it was towing a small schooner, the Olive Jeanette, which began to founder in the storm after the tow line apparently snapped.  The ship probably sank when it came to the schooner’s aid.  All 17 of its crewmembers died, along with the ship’s two cats.

Baillod spent over 20 years researching the shipwreck as a maritime historian.  He knew that swatches of debris had washed up afterward in Kenosha, which is 40 miles south of Milwaukee.  However, he found news accounts that the ship had last been seen closer to Milwaukee.

A Milwaukee fisherman in 1991 reported snagging his nets on an obstruction about 300 feet under water.  The observation was largely forgotten for decades until diving technology improved enough to allow exploration at that depth.

A number of explorers did some preliminary scouting at the lake’s surface in recent months, using deep-sea technology to find the massive submerged object.  Divers waited to descend last week because of the weather.

As soon as they got to the lake floor they knew they had found the Doty.

“It felt so good to solve this,” Jitka Hanakova, 33, a diver and captain of the charter boat that led the exploration, told AP. “This ship has been missing for so many years and it’s one of the biggest out there.”

Divers found the ship upright and intact, settled into the clay at the bottom of the lake.  Even the ship’s cargo of corn was still in its hold.

The Doty is so well preserved due to the lake’s temperature and freshwater.  It is also far enough below the surface that storms do not affect it.

Baillod said those same factors mean the crew’s corpses are likely intact as well.  He added that their bodies are probably still in the boiler room, where the sailors must have huddled as the ship went down.

Baillod said the most likely explanation for the ship sinking is that the rudder chain snapped while the Doty was turning around to aid the Olive Jeanette.  That would have left the ship at the mercy of 30-foot waves.

“When the rudder broke (the crew) must have known they were going to die,” Baillod said. “They probably had a good hour to contemplate their fate until the cargo holds collapsed.”

There are no plans to raise the Doty, which is now the property of the state of Wisconsin.  Baillod said the ship would remain preserved indefinitely where it is, rather than exposing it to air that would cause it to rot away within a few years.

Hanakova said it is in such deep water that only a small group of highly experienced divers could access it.

Baillod estimates that Lake Michigan has about 500 dive-worthy ships that are still left to be found.

He said his next target is the largest known missing ship:  the car ferry Pere Marquette 18.  He said it went down in 1910 about 20 miles from Wisconsin’s southeaster shore.

He said the new technology that made findings the Doty possible can also help locate the Pere Marquette.

“What’s nice about finding these ships is, it contributes to our cultural history,” he said. “Many people are disconnected from history so it’s nice to reconnect to our past “” to maybe look out today and think of the wooden steamships that were out there 100 years ago.

Image Caption: The L.R. Doty from a painting by Rev. Edward J. Dowling courtesy Historical Collections of the Great Lakes

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