Steamboat lost in 1886 crash discovered off Michigan's coast


GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The Michigan Shipwreck Research Association (MSRA) has found the remains of the steamship Milwaukee, which was lost in 1886.

“This marks the 19th shipwreck our team has found off the shores of West Michigan,” Valerie van Heest, who, with her husband Jack van Heest, coordinated the search effort, said in a press release.

The Milwaukee shipwreck. ((Courtesy of the Michigan Shipwreck Research Association)
The Milwaukee shipwreck. (Courtesy of the Michigan Shipwreck Research Association)

The ship was found in June 2023 using side-scan sonar. Throughout the summer, the MSRA’s board of directors worked on filming the wreck using a remotely operated vehicle and confirmed that it was the Milwaukee.

“News accounts of the accident, as well as the study of water currents, led us to the Milwaukee after only two days searching,” Neel Zoss, who spotted the telltale image on the side scan sonar, said in the release.

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An undated photo of the Milwaukee. (Courtesy of the Michigan Shipwreck Research Association)

The Milwaukee was commissioned in 1868 by the Northern Transportation Company of Ohio to carry passengers and goods west on four of the five Great Lakes from the Northern Railroad line at Ogdensburg, New York to Chicago with stops in between, the MSRA said.

When the Wall Street panic in September 1873 launched the country into a deep depression, the Northern Transportation Company continued to operate its 32 steamships through reorganization. By 1880, the railroads expanded and the Welland Canal locks enlarged, making the ship inefficient.

At this point, the ship was 14 years old and was still usable. The MSRA said it was then repurposed to carry larger cargo and sold.

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An undated portrait of Lyman Gates Mason of Muskegon. (Courtesy of the Michigan Shipwreck Research Association)

By 1883, the Milwaukee was under the ownership of lumberman Lyman Gates Mason, seen above, of Muskegon. He used the ship to carry his company’s lumber to Chicago.

On July 9, 1886, the ship left the Windy City after unloading its lumber and headed back to Muskegon for another load, the MSRA said. Around midnight, the Milwaukee was off of Holland and bearing straight for the C. Hickox — a ship belonging to another Muskegon lumber company that was nearly identical and carrying a full load of lumber.

“Dennis Harrington, the lookout on the Milwaukee, first spotted the lights from the other vessel. He notified Captain Armstrong immediately. Captain O’Day of the Hickox saw the same thing. Navigational rules were specific: both ships had to slow down, each had to steer to starboard (right) to avoid a collision, and each had to blast their steam whistle to signal their course change,” the MSRA said in the release.

A thick fog rolled in as both captains kept speed. O’Day made a quick turn and tried to signal to the other ship by blowing his steam whistle, but the pull chain broke. Armstrong froze when he didn’t know what the Hicksox was doing, the MSRA said.

When the fog lifted, the Hickox was coming straight for the Milwaukee. Armstrong made a quick turn but crashed into the Hickox, nearly capsizing the ship. Harrington was thrown into the water. He, along with the Hickox, disappeared into the fog.

Armstrong went below deck to discover water pouring in. He blew a distress signal and the crew quickly worked to save the ship.

The MSRA said several people escaped onto the Hickox by lifeboat as another ship, the City of New York, arrived. Working together, the two ships sandwiched the Milwaukee and rigged ropes to try and keep it afloat. After about two hours, the Milwaukee’s stern dipped beneath the surface and plunged to the bottom of the lake. By then, everyone made it safely aboard the Hicox.

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An undated photo of the Milwaukee shipwreck. (Courtesy of the Michigan Shipwreck Research Association)

After this crash, both Armstrong and O’Day lost their licenses for a time because neither of them slowed down as they were supposed to.

“Slowing down in the face of danger may be the most important lesson this shipwreck can teach,” the MSRA said.

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