Apr 13, 2024  |  
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Brad Matthews

NextImg:19th-century schooner that sank over 140 years ago found mostly intact in Lake Michigan

A 156-year old schooner, the Trinidad, that sank in Lake Michigan on May 11, 1881, was found mostly intact, the Wisconsin Historical Society announced Friday.

After a two-year search with sonar, Wisconsin maritime historians Brendon Baillod and Bob Jaeck found the Trinidad 270 feet deep in the waters of Lake Michigan off Algoma, Wisconsin on July 15, 2023, the state historical society wrote on Facebook.

The boat was almost exactly where its final captain reported its sinking, and settled into the lake in such a way that the bell, anchors, dishes,the deckhouse and crew possessions within were all preserved, as explained in a release Thursday by Mr. Baillod on the Shipwreck World website.

The Trinidad was built as a canal-going boat in 1867, carrying coal and iron from the place where it was made, Oswego, New York, across the Welland Canal connecting Lakes Erie and Ontario, onward to Chicago and Milwaukee, where the boat picked up grain to take back to Oswego.

Despite the lucrative trade, the boat’s owners John Keller and Aaron Mariam did not put in the money to keep the vessel in good condition. 

The Trinidad was worth $22,000 in 1867, insurance records indicate, but its value dropped to half that by 1878. The boat was sold in 1879 after being rendered unfit to carry grain, per the Shipwreck World release, which did not say who the boat’s final owners were.

In November 1880, Captain John Higgins and crew left Oswego for Milwaukee loaded with coal, only to winter and wait in Port Huron, Michigan due to the Trinidad’s poor condition. In May 1881, the Trinidad set back out, needing a tug boat to break through the ice in the Straits of Mackinac on May 5, 1881.

By May 10, 1881, the boat was headed down the Lake Michigan shoreline towards Milwaukee. In the wee hours of May 11, however, the Trinidad met its end. The crew was not initially worried about incoming water, as the ill-kept boat had suffered leaks for years.

At around 4:45 a.m., the ship lurched forward and began rapidly sinking. Unable to retrieve their possessions, Higgins and crew got aboard a lifeboat and sailed away. The sinking was so fast that Higgins’ Newfoundland dog did not have time to react whilst asleep by the cabin stove; it would be the only casualty of the wreck of the Trinidad, according to the Shipwreck World release.

After eight hours and 10 miles, the smalll boat that the men escaped in reached Algoma, then called Ahnapee. After catching a boat to Chicago, Higgins hypothesized to reporters that the trip through the Straits of Mackinac caused ice to cut the hull; his explanation helped him exculpate his employers.

Mr. Baillod contends however that a lack of good maintenance over the 14 years it existed caused the Trinidad to sink. Given that similar boats of the era lasted twice as long, Mr. Baillod argued that the Trinidad was “sailed into the bottom of [Lake Michigan],” according to the Shipwreck World release.

Mr. Baillod is now working with the Wisconsin Historical Society to have the wrecking site and remains nominated to the National Register of Historic Places. If and when it is put on the register, the coordinates of the Trinidad’s location would be made public, allowing technical divers to visit the site without damaging the ship or the artifacts it contains.

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