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Shipwreck hunters discover a schooner's 142-year-old remains in Lake Michigan

This July 2023 photo provided by State Historical Society of Wisconsin shows the schooner Trinidad's wheel.
Tamara Thomsen
/
AP
This July 2023 photo provided by State Historical Society of Wisconsin shows the schooner Trinidad's wheel.

A schooner called the Trinidad was built in 1867 with the purpose of hauling grain, coal and iron between the Midwest and the Northeast. But a lack of upkeep doomed the vessel, which sank in Lake Michigan during its final voyage in 1881.

The wreck of the Trinidad has now been located for the first time since it went down nearly a century and a half ago.

This July 2023 photo provided by the State Historical Society of Wisconsin shows the schooner Trinidad.
Tamara Thomsen/Zach Whitrock / AP
/
AP
This July 2023 photo provided by the State Historical Society of Wisconsin shows the schooner Trinidad.

Maritime historians Brendon Baillod and Bob Jaeck discovered the shipwreck on July 15 near Algoma, Wis., sitting in nearly 300 feet of water, Baillod wrote in a post on ShipwreckWorld.com.

The submerged shell of the Trinidad was "remarkably intact," with its deckhouse still in place that contained a variety of the crew members' possessions, along with anchors and bells.

"We were stunned to see that not only was the deckhouse still on her, but it still had all the cabinets with all the dishes stacked in them and all the crew's effects," Baillod told The New York Times. "It's really like a ship in a bottle. It's a time capsule."

Constructed in Grand Island, N.Y., the 140-foot-long Trinidad was built for two Oswego merchants, John Keller and Aaron B. Merriam, who used the ship for the grain trade with Milwaukee and Chicago.

The two-masted vessel was what was known as a "canaller," a type of ship built to traverse the Welland Canal that connects Lakes Erie and Ontario.

Though the grain trade was lucrative, the owners of the Trinidad didn't invest in the ship's upkeep. Leaks, decayed rigging and other problems plagued the vessel in its twilight years.

According to Baillod, Captain John Higgins and an eight-person crew set out from Port Huron in the spring of 1881 and headed north through the Straits of Mackinac on what would be the ship's final trip. At one point the vessel needed help from a tugboat to sail through thick ice.

This July 2023 photo provided by the State Historical Society of Wisconsin shows the Trinidad's intact deck house.
Tamara Thomsen/Zach Whitrock / AP
/
AP
This July 2023 photo provided by the State Historical Society of Wisconsin shows the Trinidad's intact deck house.

A leak in the hold didn't raise alarms among the crew, given the state of the Trinidad, but early on May 11 the ship suddenly began to sink.

Higgins and the crew escaped in a small boat, rowing for nearly eight hours in chilly weather before they came ashore in Ahnapee, which is now known as Algoma. The ship's "mascot," a large Newfoundland dog who had been asleep by the cabin stove, did not escape.

Baillod said he collected dozens of historical news articles about the Trinidad, studied shipping lanes and located a previously unseen image of the boat. He and Jaeck then used a custom towfish sonar to hunt for the Trinidad in the waters where the pair suspected the ship sank.

After they located what they believed was the Trinidad, the ship's hull was measured with forward-looking sonar. The search team then compared the wreck's dimensions to the dimensions listed on the Trinidad's original customs house enrollment documents and confirmed its identity.

Those involved in the find say they will nominate the Trinidad to be included in the National Register of Historic Places and will eventually announce the exact location of the shipwreck to the public.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.