142-Year-Old Shipwreck Discovered in Lake Michigan


Almost a century and a half since Captain John Higgins and his eight-person crew watched the Trinidad descend into the frigid depths of Lake Michigan, the 140-foot-long schooner was found on July 15, still “remarkably intact” and with a trove of abandoned artifacts from when the vessel first sank in 1881, according to a report on the discovery.

Wisconsin maritime historians Brendon Baillod and Bob Jaeck located the 156-year-old vessel off the coast of Algoma after two years of research that involved combing through newspaper archives, historical registration records, and 19th-century nautical maps. Constructed in 1867 by shipbuilder William Keefe in upstate New York, the Trinidad was known as a “canaller,” as it was designed to transport coal, iron, and wheat by traversing the Welland Canal — the waterway connecting Lakes Erie and Ontario. 

This diagram shows how Baillod and Jaeck surveyed Lake Michigan’s floor using a custom-made tow that deployed low-frequency sonar. (illustration via Wikimedia Commons)

Baillod and Jaeck found the wreck by connecting a custom-built underwater tow to the bottom of their boat’s hull. Hanging below the boat, the tow emitted a low-frequency sonar scan to produce a three-dimensional map of the lake floor. On their second day of surveying the terrain, they spotted a “smudge,” which was revealed to be the vessel resting beneath 270 feet of water upon additional scanning at a slower speed. The site of the schooner was almost exactly where Captain Higgins had first reported the vessel’s water demise 142 years earlier.

Immediately, Baillod and Jaeck contacted the Wisconsin Historical Society’s Maritime Preservation and Archaeology Program to report their findings. State Underwater Archeologist Tamara Thomsen confirmed Baillod and Jaeck’s findings when she had Crossmon Consulting conduct additional surveys of the site with a remote-controlled vehicle. With more precise measurements, the researchers found that the vessel’s hull matched the dimensions of the Trinidad’s based on historical documents. Thomsen and diver Zach Whitrock then went down to the lake floor to photograph the site and the artifacts aboard the schooner, where they found that the vessel’s deck house was still intact, as were some of the crew’s possessions and other items including dishes, anchors, and bells.

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A view of the interior of the Trinidad’s deck house (photo by Tamara Thomsen, courtesy Wisconsin Historical Society)

“You don’t often make a big find out in the deep water, like this. Bob and I have found a lot of shallow wrecks, a lot of broken wrecks, and they all have interesting stories, but not all of them still contain the dishes stacked in the cabinets in the kitchen like this one,” Baillod told Hyperallergic.

In 2010, Baillod made national headlines when he found the 300-foot-long L.R. Doty off the coast of Milwaukee. While the L.R. Doty wreckage was much bigger, it was “not as well preserved” as the Trinidad, Baillod explained to Hyperallergic

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Upon additional sonar scans, researchers found that the measurements of the vessel’s hull matched those of the Trinidad’s. (photo by Tom Crossmon, courtesy Wisconsin Historical Society)

In recent decades, Lake Michigan — specifically the area off of Wisconsin’s shoreline — has become a destination for underwater archaeological discoveries, as the Great Lake’s cold, fresh waters are an ideal environment for preservation. In 2021, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) designated 962 square miles from Port Washington and Two Rivers as the Wisconsin Shipwreck Coast National Marine Sanctuary, about an hour South of Algoma where the Trinidad was found. The sanctuary protects at least 36 known wreckages of “exceptional historic, archaeological, and recreational value,” according to the NOAA. Especially since the passing of the National Shipwreck Act of 1987 gave state governments the authority to manage abandoned wrecks on “state submerged lands,” Wisconsin has emerged as a leader in shipwreck preservation, Baillod told Hyperallergic.

Baillod said that he expects the Trinidad to be listed in the National Register of Historic Places before the end of the year. Afterwards, the Trinidad’s precise coordinates will be released to the public, so the wreckage can be explored by other divers as a “public resource.”

“It’s owned by the people in the state of Wisconsin, so they deserve to be able to visit it if they want.”

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A digital model of the Trinidad as the vessel appears today. (image by Tamara Thomsen and Zach Whitrock, courtesy Wisconsin Historical Society)

In the meantime, the public can explore the Trinidad via a digital three-dimensional model uploaded by Whitrock that is available online.



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