Thursday, May 3, 2012

Michigan's mysterious treasure ship, the Westmoreland, found after 156 years

Scuba diver and shipwreck hunter Ross Richardson calls his discovery of the wreck of the Westmoreland in 2010 “providential.” How else could he describe it after about a dozen attempts had been made to find the wreck since it sunk in a terrible storm in December 1854 near the Manitou Islands, north of Traverse City in Lake Michigan?
Of course, advances in diving and sonar technology certainly give Richardson advantages over all of the expeditions before him, but ending up in the right place at the right time and dogged efforts to find the wreck certainly helped his cause.

Richardson began researching the Westmoreland in 2003. It wasn’t long after Richardson moved to the Lake Ann area in 2008 before he convinced his family that it needed a boat for “recreational purposes.” Richardson had once searched for the wreck with another expedition in 2006 and became fixated by the Westmoreland. Now he was living in the back yard of where the ship had gone down and he began diving for the wreck in 2009. Soon, his boat became a search vessel and Richardson purchased side-scan sonar equipment that cost almost as much as the boat. About a year after purchasing the boat and the sonar equipment, he discovered the wreck.
“I think the story just intrigued me: Treasure, whiskey, hardhat diving, all those cool elements were in the story,” Richardson said. “So I really started researching that, not even thinking that someday I would actually find it.”
According to accounts developed after the sinking of the Westmoreland, the ship was carrying $100,000 in gold coins (valued today at somewhere between $5 million-$25 million) and was loaded with barrels of premium quality whiskey and brandy.
Seventeen people went down with the ship, 15 when a lifeboat caught on a davit and flipped as the ship was sinking, and two more died as a lifeboat got caught in huge waves close to shore. Seventeen people survived.
 I’ve also recently read in a book titled “Grand Traverse: The Civil War Era,” by John C. Mitchell, that indicates the Westmoreland was also carrying dozens of water-tight barrels of flour, which popped up to the surface during the sinking and ended up along the shoreline of Lake Michigan, helping early settlers survive the brutal oncoming winter.
In large part because of the alleged valuable cargo, expeditions to find the ship started in 1872. After the turn of the century, expeditions continued in the 1930s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and the early part of the 21st century. Each of them came up with stories, including an 1851 penny found on the deck of some wreck in a 1936 expedition, but none came up with conclusive proof that they had found the mysterious Westmoreland.
That’s until Richardson came along in 2010.
On the morning of July 10, Richardson was beginning his third of two-mile runs, each about 100 yards apart, when he passed over what was unmistakably a shipwreck. He crossed over the area several times in an attempt to gain better sonar images and discovered what appeared to be an intact ship that looked very similar to the construction style of the Westmoreland. It was lying in about 200 feet of water in a hole between two large underwater hills near Sleeping Bear Dunes. He was by himself, but immediately called Jim Sawtelle, a previous searcher who carried out an expedition in 1957. Richardson had been in regular contact with Sawtelle in the years previous sharing information, so Ross wanted to share the discovery with him.
Now Richardson had to decide what to do next. He didn’t want to tell too many people and decided to dive the wreck by himself, a dangerous task in 200 feet of water. So, he headed out with his brother, grappled the boat and descended by himself. It would be his deepest solo dive ever. And to add to the circumstances, he decided to videotape the dive as well.
“I was never really fist-pumping. I never really got excited that way. I was more nervous, like what’s the next step,” he said. “So I decided to dive it alone.”
As the ship began to take shape beneath Richardson as he descended on his grappling line, he became the first person to lay eyes on the ship since she had sunk to the bottom of Lake Michigan 10 years before President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.

As for the gold, the pilot house, where the ship’s safe was located, was blown off as the ship sunk and has presumably never been found. Richardson admits he will continue searching for the pilothouse and the gold coins.
“I haven’t gotten rich off of this. I don’t have a gold-plated car in the parking lot. I drive a Saturn,” he said.
The whiskey, which if intact could be worth millions of dollars, was unable to be seen since the hold was collapsed under the weight of decks above it. Richardson discovered an access hole into the hold but with virtually no room to move within it.
“I wouldn’t go in there. I don’t need a drink that badly,” Richardson quipped.
Richardson also said it’s very possible that the remains of the victims of the sinking are on or around the ship but that looking for them was “not his thing.”
“I’m more of a preservationist, and more into the history. I’m not a treasure hunter, it just happened that the legend is this ship was carrying gold,” Richardson said.
“But it’s a great story and a great find. I feel privileged and humbled to be able to claim that I found it and share everyone else’s stories and the legend. It’s a great local legend for the northern Michigan region,” he added. “So I’m glad that it was me that found it so I could tell the stories as opposed to a treasure hunter.”
Richardson has refused to divulge the location of the Westmoreland, but he will be publishing a book this summer about the discovery called, “The Search for the Westmoreland: Lake Michigan’s Treasure Shipwreck” published by Arbutus Press. GPS coordinates will be in the book.
Here is my interview with Ross Richardson regarding his discovery of the Westmoreland from a presentation he gave at the Dossin Great Lakes Museum. The second video is a portion of Richardson’s maiden dive to the Westmoreland.
Learn more about Ross and his discoveries at his website