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1886 shipwreck found in Lake Michigan by explorers using newspaper clippings as clues: "Bad things happen in threes"

Wisconsin father-daughter duo discover shipwreck
Wisconsin father-daughter duo discover shipwreck 01:06

Nearly 140 years after a ship went down in Lake Michigan, explorers have discovered the wreck "remarkably intact" after following clues from old newspaper clippings. The wreck of the steamship Milwaukee, which sank after colliding with another vessel in 1886, was found 360 feet below the water's surface, explorers from the Michigan Shipwreck Research Association (MSRA) said this weekend.

The researchers said they located the Milwaukee in June 2023 using side-scan sonar and then surveyed the wreck using a remote operated vehicle (ROV). The team announced its discovery to a live audience at a theater in Holland, Michigan, at the association's annual film festival.

Sonar showing the steamship Milwaukee. Michigan Shipwreck Research Association

Originally, the 135-foot vessel had three decks, two designed for freight and one for passengers. But after the Wall Street panic of 1873, many Great Lakes ships like the Milwaukee were repurposed to accommodate more cargo, such as lumber, iron and packaged goods.

In 1883, a businessman named Lyman Gates Mason of Muskegon bought the Milwaukee to haul his company's lumber to Chicago. The vessel was converted to fit Mason's needs,  but there were no photographs to provide any details of how the ship was altered.

"It was newspaper accounts of the sinking that provided the clues we needed to locate the shipwreck," said Valerie van Heest, who created the search grid.

Newspapers described how on July 9, 1868, the Milwaukee set a course to Muskegon, Michigan to pick up a cargo of lumber as a nearly identical ship, the C. Hickox, left Muskegon for Chicago with a load of lumber, while towing a fully packed schooner barge.

Though the lake was calm that day, smoke from wildfires burning in Wisconsin was hanging in the air, and eventually the ships ended up on collision course. Under navigational rules, Captain Armstrong on the Milwaukee and Captain O'Day on the Hickox were supposed to slow down, steer right and sound their steam whistles.

"But the old superstition that bad things happen in threes would haunt the captains of both ships that night," the shipwreck association said.

Neither captain ordered their ship to slow down, according to the report, because "a thick fog rolled in rendering them both blind." 

Captain O'Day finally made a turn, but when he tried to pull his steam whistle, the pull chain broke, and soon the Hickox plowed into the side of the Milwaukee.

"Pandemonium broke out on the Milwaukee. The captain went below deck and saw water pouring in," the shipwreck association said.

The steamship Milwaukee Michigan Shipwreck Research Association

Almost two hours after the collision, the Milwaukee plunged to the bottom of Lake Michigan. Luckily, everyone on the ship had made it safely aboard the Hickox.

"News accounts of the accident, as well as the study of water currents, led us to the Milwaukee after only two days searching," said Neel Zoss, who spotted the wreck on the sonar.

The Milwaukee was found resting on the bottom of the lake facing northeast, the same direction it had been heading 137 years earlier when it went down.

"Visibility was excellent" said Jack van Heest, who piloted the ROV. "We saw the forward mast still standing as the ROV headed down to the bottom."

After studying the wreck, the explorers realized the Milwaukee had indeed been remodeled, with the pilothouse and aft cabin made smaller in order to accommodate more lumber.

Both of the ship captains temporarily lost their licenses after the accident.

"Slowing down in the face of danger may be the most important lesson this shipwreck can teach," the shipwreck association wrote.

The announcement of the Milwaukee's discovery comes just a few months after a man and his daughter found the remains of a ship that sank in Lake Michigan 15 years before the Milwaukee, in 1871. 

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