Ship that sank in ‘incredible storm’ in 1842 discovered in Lake Michigan

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A wreck lost nearly two centuries ago off the eastern shores of Lake Michigan has been rediscovered by two adventurous divers.

The ill-fated ship, the Milwaukie, sank in the cold, frigid waters of the lake near the small town of Saugatuck, Michigan, on a windy winter night on November 16, 1842, which kicked off the snowy and cold winter. of 1842, according to The Chicago Tribune.

Kevin Ailes and his wife, Amy, who discovered four shipwrecks in the Great Lakes, became interested in trying to find the Milwaukie and used Google Earth and stories about the ship to make the incredible find.

The Milwaukie, which would have looked like the ship above, was the first true “ship”, meaning it had a minimum of three masts, all square-rigged, to navigate the Great Lakes.

The Ailes are well-trained and experienced divers, which has helped them in their quest to dig up several ships.

“I was just amazed at what we have here in the Great Lakes, and with a little research I was able to uncover quite a few fascinating artifacts,” Kevin Ailes said. “It’s kind of addicting, the more you watch this stuff the more stories you hear, you realize it’s fascinating what you can find underwater.”

He never expected to be able to find the Milwaukie.

According to the story, the 200-foot-long vessel – the first of its kind to sail on Lake Michigan – left its port at the mouth of the Kalamazoo River bound for Buffalo, NY, and it was carrying 1,300 barrels of flour and 13 crew. According to the Michigan Shipwreck Research Association, a number of crew members later recalled worrying about leaving port because dangerous weather was common on Lake Michigan in mid-November.

Part of the wreckage of the Milwaukie is visible under the waters of Lake Michigan. Photo courtesy of Kevin Ailes

The crew were also quite superstitious and apparently noticed rats fleeing the boat in large numbers while in port at St. Joseph Harbour. Sailors grew concerned when an old gray rat followed them, an apparent sign that danger might be lurking somewhere on the ship, according to the MSRA. Nevertheless, the captain decided that the boat should depart for Buffalo as planned, sparking dissent among the crew.

As the boat entered the waters off what is known today as Saugatuck Dunes State Park, the winds changed dramatically and temperatures quickly dropped below freezing, putting the boat and her crew in peril. “It was an incredible storm,” Kevin Ailes said.

At one point, according to research conducted by Kevin Ailes, interviews with the crew suggest a mutiny occurred on board, with the crew going so far as to assassinate the captain before intentionally beaching the ship.

Regardless of the specific details, the ship’s accident was violent and dangerous. Less than half the crew left the ship and made it safely to a nearby lighthouse, the lighthouse keeper then sending a young man named Henderson to scout the wreckage. Henderson reported that the boat met its end 2 miles to the north and about 60 feet off the lighthouse station.

Six sailors survived the incident, their oilcloth coveralls and jackets likely protecting them from exposure and freezing water when the barrels of flour toppled into the water, according to SARM. Nine other sailors, including the captain of the boat, died or went missing after the incident.

The boat was not recovered, although its supplies of flour and wine were scavenged by the people of Singapore, Michigan, which is now a ghost town buried under the sand dunes of Lake Michigan. Kevin Ailes said these supplies may have been what allowed the town to survive the vicious winter of 1842, as bad weather made it impossible to bring in other supplies.

The wreckage was visible on Google Maps in a still satellite image from March 2021. Image courtesy of Kevin Ailes/Google Maps

“Winter was made a lot easier to survive because they had this wonderful gift of flour on the shore,” Kevin said. “I’m sure the wine was helpful too.”

Using details from history and technology, Kevin and Amy Ailes began combing satellite images archived on Google Earth of the approximate area of ​​the sinking, in hopes of finding gold. Finally, the pair found what looked like the ship a few hundred meters offshore in an image from March 2021.

“When we got to the site it was buried. We didn’t see anything at all on the site at first,” Kevin Ailes said. “But I have underwater metal detecting equipment, a magnetometer, which we brought back to the site and were able to check [the ship’s] existence.”

In late May, on another trip back to the sinking site, the Ailes finally had the chance to see parts of the ship sticking out of the sand and used their diving experience to take photos and video.

“My wife, Amy, is right, she’s a part of this here and deserves all the credit I give. Maybe even more with her supporting me,” Kevin Ailes said, adding that she helps plan each mission.

The pair have several other wrecks they plan to salvage, and they’re relatively confident of digging up their next find somewhere in the waters of Lake Michigan soon.

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