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Sunken Treasure In Lake Michigan: Century-Old Ship

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Sunken Treasure In Lake Michigan: Century-Old Ship


Sunken Treasure In Lake Michigan: Century-Old Ship

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A century-old maritime mystery has now been solved. In 1898, the wooden steamship L.R. Doty sank during a fierce storm in the waters of Lake Michigan. The ship was carrying corn bound for Canada. The crew of 17 people and two cats died, and the ship was never seen again, that is until last week.

A group of Wisconsin divers discovered the shipwreck at the bottom of the lake, not far from the shores of Milwaukee. Brendon Baillod is a Great Lakes maritime historian who led the search for the L.R. Doty. I asked him how exactly he found the long-lost ship.

Mr. BRENDON BAILLOD (President, Wisconsin Underwater Archeology Association): Well, the L.R. Doty was found really 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. And 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.

I began getting interested in the wreck about 20 years ago, when I became collecting accounts of Great Lakes shipwrecks from a master database of all of the vessels ever lost in the lakes. And during that research, I realized that the L.R. Doty probably was off Milwaukee and may well be this fisherman's snag that we had heard about.

NORRIS: Aha, so tell me about the effort to actually get down there. Individual divers went down there and actually found the ship.

Mr. BAILLOD: That's right. We left on a day where we all found that there was good weather, and we could safely get out to the site. We then sent divers down and when they got down, 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.

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.

NORRIS: Big smiles.

Mr. BAILLOD: All around.

NORRIS: What condition is it in?

Mr. BAILLOD: Well, the wreck is in really pristine condition, as are most wrecks in deep water on the Great Lakes, 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.

And so the ship is actually upright and intact and looks just like she did when she was afloat. Unfortunately, there's also 17 human bodies on the ship. None of the human remains were ever found from the L.R. Doty, and we suspect that most of the crew was hunkered down inside the ship because they were out 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 able to even escape to the surface.

NORRIS: You know, most of people have heard the song "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald." Was there a song from that time about this vessel?

Mr. BAILLOD: No, there wasn't and probably because, it's sad to say, shipwrecks were so common that the public was really desensitized to them. And it was just accepted as a cost of doing business that every year, 20 or 30 significant commercial vessels would just vanish on the Great Lakes.

NORRIS: Brendon Baillod, thanks so much for making time for us.

Mr. BAILLOD: My pleasure.

NORRIS: Brendon Baillod is the president of the Wisconsin Underwater Archeology Association.


And since there was no song, we wrote one.

(Soundbite of song, "The Ballad of the L.R. Doty")

Unidentified Singers: It was 1898, October, the 13th day. Our proud steamer did some good time make across the lake to some yon bay.

We're full of cats and corn, kitty cats and crispy corn.

Our mighty haul from Illinois of the hinterlands best grain, and the cabin boy both fine and fair, but the captain was a pain.

We are full of cats and corn, kitty cats and crispy corn.

Then the storm came up, and the ship went down into waters deep and cold for a century and a dozen years, 'til our story could be told.

We was full of cats and corn, furry cats and creamy corn. We was full of cats and corn, kitty cats and crispy corn.

SIEGEL: "The Ballad of the L.R. Doty," a modern sea chantey performed by Sea Captain Steve Proffitt, his first mate Priska Neely and cabin boy Peter Breslow.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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