Sunken Treasure In Lake Michigan: Century-Old Ship

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L.R. Doty at the Soo Locks, 1896

The L.R. Doty at the Soo Locks in 1896. Two years later, the steamship sank, killing all 17 people onboard. Andrew Young/Courtesy of the Historical Collections of the Great Lakes hide caption

itoggle caption Andrew Young/Courtesy of the Historical Collections of the Great Lakes

A century-old maritime mystery has been solved. In 1898, the wooden steamship L.R. Doty sank during a fierce storm in the waters of Lake Michigan, killing all 17 people — and two cats — aboard.

The ship was never seen again — until last week. A group of Wisconsin divers discovered the shipwreck at the bottom of the lake, not far from the Milwaukee shores.

The search team was operating on a 20-year-old tip from a commercial fisherman, says Brendon Baillod, president of the Wisconsin Underwater Archaeology Association. Baillod is the Great Lakes maritime historian who led the search for the L.R. Doty.

"The L.R. Doty was found by a commercial fisherman in 1991 who was out netting chubs in deep water, and he snagged a large obstruction on the bottom of the lake," Baillod tells NPR's Michele Norris. "He told a couple of people about it locally, but not much was made of it — because it was in 300 feet of water and at that time it might as well have been on the moon."

Baillod says he became interested in the L.R. Doty around the time he started collecting accounts of Great Lakes shipwrecks from a database of all of the master vessels lost on the lakes.

So he and his crew picked a day that had good weather and sent divers looking for the ship.

"We were waiting for them to reappear on the line when a large red lift bag shot up our mooring line and came to the surface with a note attached to it," Baillod says. "And our hearts all sank because we really felt that there had been an accident below — usually notes like that say, 'Call the Coast Guard.' We pulled the note off and read it and it said: 'All divers safe, back in 80 minutes, huge wooden freighter on the bottom.' So we knew right then and there we had found the long-lost wreck of the L.R. Doty."

Unlike shipwrecks in the ocean, this one is in "pristine condition," Baillod says.

"Because the lakes don't have any of the marine boring worms that the ocean has, there's not much life on the bottom of the lake — it preserves wood tremendously well," he says.

The ship is upright, intact and looks like it did when it sailed Lake Michigan, except the pilothouses and deck hatches blew off in the disaster, Baillod says.

A wheelbarrow for trimming cargo in the hold has drifted onto the deck on the sunken L.R. Doty. i

Modern-day divers photographed a wheelbarrow that ended up on the deck of the sunken L.R. Doty, which is upright and intact on the bottom of Lake Michigan. John Scoles hide caption

itoggle caption John Scoles
A wheelbarrow for trimming cargo in the hold has drifted onto the deck on the sunken L.R. Doty.

Modern-day divers photographed a wheelbarrow that ended up on the deck of the sunken L.R. Doty, which is upright and intact on the bottom of Lake Michigan.

John Scoles

"All of the articles from 1898 that the crew had on them are still in the cabins of the ship in the same condition they were left," he says. "Unfortunately, there's also 17 human bodies on the ship. None of the human remains were ever found after she was lost in 1898, and we suspect that most of the crew was hunkered down in the ship because they were in 30-foot seas in a vessel that only came 20 feet above the surface. And the waves were literally broaching right over her deck so we suspect that none of the crew were even able to escape to the surface."

Shipwrecks in the Great Lakes are protected under state law.

"This wreck is owned by the people of Wisconsin," he says. "It's considered an archaeological site and a gravesite. Divers are welcome to visit the site, but we take only pictures. It requires a salvage permit from our state historical society to remove anything. And really we haven't had a lot of luck removing artifacts: It's expensive to preserve them and there's really limited interest in them once they come to the surface."

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