|Photos courtesy of David Trotter Divers examine the wreck of the Keystone State a 288-foot side-wheel steamer that sank in Lake Huron in 1961. One of its large, intact paddlewheels can be seen in the background. The wreck was discovered in July 2013.|
The Keystone State, a side-wheel steamer, was found in this summer by veteran shipwreck hunter David Trotter of Canton and his team, Undersea Research Associates.
The search group is an operation funded by Trotter and includes a small group of volunteer divers and support personnel. Trotter and crew found the vessel between Alpena and Harrisville in the northeast portion of the Lower Peninsula, about 40 miles offshore. He said the team found the vessel during the waning days of the search season.
The 288-foot Keystone State was one of the most opulent vessels of her day. She was built for the passenger and package cargo trade, running regular routes from Buffalo to Chicago and Milwaukee. During her heyday, she was called a “Palace Steamer.”
But when she sank in a furious gale in November 1861, she was rumored to be carrying gold and war materials meant for the Civil War.
Prior to pushing off from Detroit on Nov. 8, she was loaded with cargo described as “iron implements (farm implements).” Her destination was reported to be Milwaukee, Wis. Some experts believe the cargo was actually gold and military supplies destined for Civil War battlefields, and these items were deliberately mislabeled to hide the true nature of the cargo manifests from Confederate spies. Trotter said it would have been odd to ship farm implements during the winter.
The Keystone State was last seen off Port Austin near the tip of Michigan’s thumb area in a disabled condition and rolling heavily in rough water.
According to Trotter, records indicate she went down either Nov. 9 or 10, and all 33 crew members perished.
It took more than a week for the first pieces of debris from the Keystone to appear, only adding more questions for those trying to find out where the ship had succumbed. For the last 150 years, her final resting place has been a mystery.
Thanks to recent technological improvements in side-scan sonar technology, more of the deep wrecks that have remained hidden to previous generations of shipwreck hunters are being discovered.
Trotter knew he had found a significant wreck last July not only due to the size of the ship that sonar detected, but also because it had a large sidewheel, which made the ship easy to identify.
“This was the only sidewheel steamer of this size that remained to be discovered in Lake Huron,” Trotter said.
The steamer and its debris field was discovered in 150-200 feet of water, requiring divers with technical skills to descend to such depths. Divers only had 15 to 20 minutes to explore the wreck before spending more than an hour in decompression stops while heading back to the surface.
Trotter, 73, said the team has yet to determine how much of the damage on the ship occurred topside and how much occurred when she hit the bottom.
“Her fight to survive, over many hours on the surface, caused her to have significant damage before sinking,” he said. “Then 150 years on the floor of Lake Huron contributed to gradual deterioration. Yet her large paddlewheels remain intact, and her beautiful ‘walking beam’ steam engine sits upright, and her boilers are still in place.
Trotter said the dive team didn’t find any of the rumored gold or farm implements in the Keystone’s empty cargo hold. It would be common for the ship’s crew to dump cargo in an attempt to keep the ship afloat. But that doesn’t mean he and his crew will stop looking.
“Because of the depth of the wreck site and the remoteness of the area where the ship foundered, exploring and documenting the wreck site takes some time and effort,” he said. “Of course, one always wonders if the story of the gold bullion/coins is true, and perhaps we eventually will make that ‘one of a kind’ discovery. … We still have some exploring to do in the large debris field.”