Researchers Use Old Newspaper Reports to Identify 137-Year-Old Shipwreck in Lake Michigan

The steamship “Milwaukee” sank in a heavy fog off the coast of Holland, Michigan, after colliding with another vessel

Black and white photo of ship
The steamship Milwaukee was sailing across Lake Michigan to pick up another load of lumber when disaster struck. Michigan Shipwreck Research Association

On July 9, 1886, the steamship Milwaukee collided with the C. Hickox on Lake Michigan. Most of the men survived, but the 135-foot vessel sank to the bottom of the lake.

Now, more than 130 years later, researchers have identified the Milwaukee’s wreckage, according to a statement from the Michigan Shipwreck Research Association. Last June, they found the vessel roughly 40 miles off the coast of Holland, Michigan, submerged under 360 feet of water. The association announced the discovery on March 23.

When they began their search, researchers knew of the Milwaukee—but they didn’t know the exact location of its final resting place. To pinpoint its probable location, they studied water currents and scoured old newspaper reports, which contained detailed descriptions of the incident.

After two days of searching with side-scan sonar, they found a “remarkably intact” vessel—“the fastest discovery we’ve made,” Valerie van Heest, the association’s director, tells the New York Times’ Sopan Deb. It was sitting upright and facing northeast, the direction it was sailing when it sank.

The team returned several weeks later with an underwater remotely operated vehicle (ROV) equipped with a camera, which captured video footage of the wreck. “Visibility was excellent,” says Jack van Heest, who piloted the ROV, in the statement. “We saw the forward mast still standing as the ROV headed down to the bottom.”

According to the association, the Milwaukee serves as a reminder of the importance of “slowing down in the face of danger.”

Image of shipwreck on bottom of lake bed
The vessel was submerged under 360 feet of water about 40 miles from Holland, Michigan. Michigan Shipwreck Research Association

On the day of the crash, the ship was traveling from Chicago to Muskegon, Michigan, to pick up a load of lumber. The Hickox, meanwhile, was making the opposite journey, from Muskegon to Chicago, loaded down with lumber and towing a packed schooner barge.

Around midnight, the two ships approached each other off the coast of Holland, Michigan. The Milwaukee’s lookout, Dennis Harrington, saw the lights of the Hickox and alerted his captain. “Standard operating procedures would have called for both ships to slow down, steer to starboard and blow their steam whistles,” writes the Times. “But the captains of both ships, thinking the visibility was fine, did not do any of those things.”

As a thick fog appeared, visibility quickly deteriorated, and both captains tried to maneuver their ships out of the way. Their efforts failed, and the Hickox rammed into the side of the Milwaukee. The force of the blow sent the lookout man, Harrington, into the water below.

Onboard the Milwaukee, water began pouring in below deck. The ship’s captain blew a distress signal to alert nearby vessels and tried to slow the influx of water. Another nearby steamship, the City of New York, arrived and unsuccessfully tried to keep the Milwaukee afloat.

After two hours, the ship’s stern slipped below the surface and sank. By then, the Hickox had rescued the men aboard the Milwaukee—except for Harrington, who was the disaster’s only casualty.

According to the association, the captains of both ships temporarily lost their licenses because they had failed to take precautions that could have prevented the collision.

The Milwaukee is one of dozens of shipwrecks discovered in the Great Lakes in recent years. Last year alone, researchers found over a dozen vessels in Lake Michigan—more than three times the number typically found in a year, reports the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Caitlin Looby.

Tamara Thomsen, a maritime archeologist with the Wisconsin Historical Society, tells the publication that the recent uptick is likely due to fluctuating water levels and greater public awareness of how to report discoveries.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.