|A diver moves past the sidewheel of the Keystone State.|
Lutz, 57, of Warren, Michigan, was part of the team that discovered the Keystone State shipwreck in Lake Huron last summer. Undersea Research Associates, headed and funded by David Trotter of Canton, found the wreck the weekend of July 6, 2013, ending the mystery of one of the Great Lakes most opulent ships. Trotter made the find public last December.
The Keystone State was a Civil War-era steamer built for the passenger and package cargo trade. She sank in a furious gale in November 1861. In her day, she was called a “Palace Steamer.” She was rumored to be carrying gold and war materials meant for the Civil War.
For more than 150 years, she remained hidden under a blanket of cold, dark water, eluding generations of search efforts. That’s until Lutz and company found her last summer. She was immediately recognizable by her large sidewheel. She was the last sidewheel-style ship of its size that hadn’t been discovered in the Great Lakes.
“We weren’t even looking for the Keystone State to be honest with you,” Lutz said. “The last eyewitness reports had her going down by the Thumb, and we found her 40-50 miles from there.”
The 288-foot ship is believed to have succumbed to the storm either Nov. 9 or Nov. 10, 1861, and all 33 members of her crew perished. Adding to the mystery is that it took more than a week for the first pieces of debris from the Keystone to appear. The cabin broke off and washed away near Pointe aux Barques at the tip of Michigan’s Thumb.
Since the ship was found further north between Alpena and Harrisville, Lutz said his group figures the crew must have struggled for several horrifying hours on the surface in a desperate attempt to survive.
“When I see a new wreck for first time, I immediately think of circumstances that brought it to that position. I think about the people, what they went through, the struggle they went through. You become very emotional and very respectful,” Lutz said.
While discovering a new shipwreck is exciting, the buildup and preparation leading to the discovery can be anything but. The team began their search in April by plotting a search grid. Searching would go on every weekend, with overnights spent on the water. What follows is a long, tedious, detailed search pattern over the grid.
Little time is spent diving, and lots of time is spent killing time.
“It’s a great time to catch up on your reading, look at your computer, watch movies,” Lutz said. “Sure, there’s lots of boredom, but when you come across a wreck, it gets everyone’s excitement up. It also gets exciting when a freighter goes by in the middle of the night. You don’t want to alter your line, but somebody has to move. But you try to monitor their movement before it becomes an issue.”
With today’s modern improvements to side scan sonar technology, in which images of the floor of the lake are created by bouncing sound waves off the lake bottom and back up to the search vessel, team members top side were quickly able to determine they had discovered a large wreck.
With the trademark sidewheel clearly visible in the sonar, they knew they had found the Keystone State, with the ship and its debris field lying in 150-200 feet of water.
The next step is to establish a setting line, in which a group of divers takes a line down from the research vessel and attaches it to the wreck. Both Lutz and Trotter have said being in that first group is a mixed blessing.
The first group has the honor of being the first group to lay eyes on something that hasn’t been seen for a long time (in this case 150 years), but their first responsibility is attaching the set line. But they only have 15-20 minutes of bottom time before taking more than an hour to ascend back to the surface to off gas and make required decompression stops.
The second group doesn’t get the honor of, metaphorically speaking, getting to the mountaintop first, but they do get to explore the wreck in its entirety and provide the first video record of the lost ship.
“We switch roles back and forth,” Lutz said of the dive team. “And if you set the line fairly quickly, you have some time to explore, so both roles are enjoyable.”
Preparing for such a deep dive in a cold water environment takes time. Between training and prepping equipment, which endures a lot of stress on such a dive, and travelling to the dive site, via car and then boat, Lutz estimates for every minute of bottom time exploring a newly discovered wreck, an hour is spent in preparation. But clearly for Lutz and company, the time and effort are worth it.
“Although you’re down there with other divers, it’s not a team sport really, it’s more of a personal thing,” he said. “You feel, when you are down there, like it’s almost ghostly at times, especially when you see bones or shoes on the wreck. You know people are there and people lost their lives on these wrecks.”
Due to improvements in sonar technology, most shipwreck hunters agree any remaining Great Lakes shipwrecks will probably be discovered in the next 15-20 years. That means the era of Great Lakes shipwreck hunting is quickly coming to an end. After helping discover more than his share of wrecks, Lutz admits he is lucky to be here during such a high time in exploration.
Plans for the 2014 exploration season include examining the debris field of the Keystone State, including searching for the mysterious gold, and continuing the search for two ships that went down during the Great Lakes Storm of 1913: the Argus and the James Carruthers, which both went down in Lake Huron.
To see video of Undersea Research Associates exploration of the Keystone State, click here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MJNmIFUfcf4&authuser=0