Researchers found an 1886 Lake Michigan shipwreck - with the help of historic news accounts

ByZoe Sottile, CNN
Monday, April 1, 2024
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HOLLAND, Michigan -- The remains of a ship that sank over 100 years ago has been discovered off the shores of western Michigan - thanks in part to archival news articles that provided clues to the ship's location.

The Michigan Shipwreck Research Association announced the discovery on March 23 in Holland, Michigan, according to a Facebook post from the organization. A group of experts from the organization uncovered the wreck of "the remarkably intact steamship Milwaukee," which sank in July 1886 after colliding with another ship.

The discovery marks the 19th shipwreck discovered off the shores of West Michigan by the group, according to the Facebook post.

The association said it first caught sight of the Milwaukee in June 2023 using side-scan sonar, a technology used to detect and visualize objects on the seafloor.

They then worked to film the wreck and confirm it was, in fact, the Milwaukee. A remote-operated vehicle was assembled specifically for the Milwaukee project, according to the Facebook post.

Newspaper accounts of the sinking proved vital in locating the ship, the Michigan Shipwreck Research Association said. News articles described the ship's course as well as where it sank, helping researchers hone in on a specific area off Holland, Michigan.

"News accounts of the accident, as well as the study of water currents, led us to the Milwaukee after only two days searching," said the association's Neel Zoss, according to the Facebook post.

The ship was headed to Muskegon from Chicago to pick up lumber the day of the sinking. A lookout on the Milwaukee spotted the lights of another ship, the C. Hickox, approaching. But then a thick fog rolled in - making it impossible for the captain to see what the C. Hickox was doing. By the time the fog had parted, the ships were set to collide. "The Hickox plowed into the side of the Milwaukee, popping hull planks, nearly capsizing the ship," the Michigan Shipwreck Research Association said.

Everyone aboard the Milwaukee was able to safely make it aboard the Hickox before the ship sank, according to the association.

One key detail that helped researchers confirm the wreck's identity was the damage caused by the Hickox. In an interview with CNN affiliate WXMI, Valerie van Heest, director of the Michigan Shipwreck Research Association, described the damage on the ship's portside as one of the "smoking guns" corroborating the ship's identity.

News accounts also pointed to a "canvas jacket" the crew rigged by stretching the sail over the damaged side of the ship, according to WXMI. Researchers discovered canvas straps lying next to the ship, further confirming they had uncovered the Milwaukee.

Jack van Heest, who also serves on the association's board of directors, told WXMI the team had likely spent a total of 400 hours working on the Milwaukee project.

"But it's all worth it when you can confirm what you found, and we were able to do that with this discovery," he said.

The shipwreck was discovered resting upright, facing northeast - just as it was heading that night, the Facebook post notes.

A scan of the Milwaukee, which sank in July 1886 after colliding with another vessel.
Michigan Shipwreck Research Association via CNN Newsource

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