Researchers found a shipwreck in Lake Michigan in 1886, with the help of historical news

The remains of a ship that sank more than 100 years ago have been discovered off the coast of western Michigan, thanks in part to archival news articles that provided clues to the ship’s location.

The Michigan Shipwreck Research Association announced the discovery on March 23 in Holland, Michigan, according to a Facebook post from the organization. A group of experts from the organization discovered the remains of the “remarkably intact steamship Milwaukee,” which sank in July 1886 after colliding with another ship.

The discovery marks the 19th shipwreck discovered off the coast of West Michigan by the group, according to the Facebook post.

The association said it first spotted the Milwaukee in June 2023 using side-scan sonar, a technology used to detect and visualize objects on the seafloor.

They then worked to film the wreckage and confirm that it was, in fact, the Milwaukee. According to the Facebook post, a remotely operated vehicle was assembled specifically for the Milwaukee project.

Newspaper accounts of the sinking proved vital in locating the ship, the Michigan Shipwreck Research Association said. News articles described the ship’s course and where it sank, helping investigators focus on a specific area off Holland, Michigan.

“News about the accident, as well as the study of water currents, led us to Milwaukee after only two days of searching,” said Neel Zoss of the association, according to the Facebook post.

The ship was headed to Muskegon from Chicago to pick up lumber on the day of the sinking. A lookout on the Milwaukee saw the lights of another ship, the C. Hickox, approaching. But then a thick fog appeared, making it impossible for the captain to see what the C. Hickox was doing. When the fog cleared, the ships were about to collide. “The Hickox slammed into the side of the Milwaukee, exploding planks from her hull and nearly capsizing the ship,” the Michigan Shipwreck Research Association said.

Everyone aboard the Milwaukee was able to safely get aboard the Hickox before the ship sank, according to the association.

A key detail that helped investigators confirm the identity of the wreck was the damage caused by the Hickox. In an interview with CNN affiliate WXMI, Valerie van Heest, director of the Michigan Shipwreck Research Association, described the damage to the ship’s port side as one of the “irrefutable evidence” corroborating the ship’s identity.

The news also noted a “canvas jacket” that the crew fixed by stretching the sail over the damaged side of the ship, according to WXMI. Investigators discovered canvas straps next to the boat, further confirming that they had discovered the Milwaukee.

Jack van Heest, who also sits on the association’s board of directors, told WXMI that the team had likely spent a total of 400 hours working on the Milwaukee project.

“But it’s all worth it when you can confirm what you found, and we were able to do that with this discovery,” he said.

The wreck was discovered upright, facing northeast, just as it was heading that night, the Facebook post notes.


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