Behind the shipwreck discovered in Lake Michigan

A 150-year-old sailboat that sank in 1881 has finally been discovered in Lake Michigan.

On July 15, maritime historians Brendon Billaud and Bob Jake located the ancient shipwreck off the coast of Algoma, Wisconsin. The Trinidad had been on their radar for over twenty years, with the ship a strong candidate for research; The captain and all eight of his crew (except the trusted Newfoundland) survived, providing a good account of the place where the ship sank.

After eight hours of struggling to row to shore, Captain Higgins told Navy reporters that he believed it all started in the Straits of Mackinac, where the ship’s hull had likely been cut off by ice. According to insurance records, Billaud reported that the ship did not receive the normal level of maintenance, with most ships of this era lasting twice as long with regular recaulking or replacement of damaged or rotting parts.

The ship Trinidad was built in 1867, in Grand Island, New York, to bring coal to cities along the western part of the Great Lakes. On its way back, the ship was carrying “prairie gold,” or wheat, to towns on the east coast. Finding coal was one way Billaud and Jake were able to verify that it was Trinidad.

“Shipwrecks in the Great Lakes have been a reality in the industry,” said Baillaud. “It was very dangerous on any trip, unless it was the height of summer, you could count on there being some risk.”

The boat’s captain, John Higgins, would retire shortly after the Trinidad sank, Bayloud said. He had been in a number of other shipwrecks, including one off the coast of Racine, Wisconsin, a few years earlier in 1877. He said the crew of the Trinidad were loathe to publicly challenge the condition of their schooner, because it would be difficult to sail again. Others or convince another shipowner to trust them if they are seen disparaging their previous ship.

“There was no outcry from the crowd,” Baillaud said. “You could just as easily have died working in a foundry or in many other occupations of the time in the 1870s or 1880s.”

He went on to explain how to deliver coal for heating in the winter. This was also when a shipment of grain and many other crops would come and have to be delivered. It was a time when the weather was the worst and most unpredictable. How these sailors had no weather radar, nor modern waterproof weather equipment. The chances of getting into trouble were excellent, he said, which is why people die by the thousands in the Great Lakes region every year.

Growing up on Lake Superior, Billod was involved in shipwrecks right off his home on the Keweenaw Waterway — he’s been doing this work his whole life. He began diving and cleaning magic from sunken ships at an early age. He wondered what these ships were? No one knew their names, so when he was a teenager he started looking them up in local newspapers, discovering they were some of the most historic sailboats on Lake Superior. By the time he was in his twenties, the Keweenaw Underwater Sanctuary had been established, thanks to the Abandoned Shipwrecks Act (1987), meaning every state had the right to have known shipwrecks in its waters. Now, Billod is working privately to locate some unidentified ships.

It took Billaud and his business partner about two years to locate Trinidad. They built a search grid, to help narrow down the amount of time spent in the water, because shipwrecks can’t be searched with side-scan sonar if there’s any kind of wave, and they also need good thermocline conditions. On the first day of searching, they did not see any of the bottom, it was completely bare and unmarked, which was unusual. Most parts of the lake have some geology or some undulations or something like that, Baillod said.

On the second day, the second pass, they were reaching the middle of the net, when they ran over an unusual little indistinct smudge. They both agreed that they should turn around and look. So, they turned the boat around, slowed it down and pulled it into range to about 600 feet, when they almost burned a hole in the screen – as they passed over what was very clearly the hull of a ship

“We were so excited that we took out our cell phones and started recording it live,” Baillod said. “Vivid images of the moment of discovery. We were both so excited. I mean it wasn’t the first shipwreck we’d ever found, but we were so excited.”

Wisconsin’s marine archeology program is very involved, according to Baillaud. That’s why, just two weeks after the discovery, he and his business partner had access to additional equipment to further survey the wreck and verify that it was in fact Trinidad. Their next plans are to nominate the remains to the National Register of Historic Places, Baillod said. Once the Trinidad is documented and listed on the National Register, the vessel’s location will be announced. This way, technical divers can visit the remains of one of the three best-preserved wrecks in Wisconsin, without worrying about anyone harming the artifact.

As for what’s coming, Bayloud said there is a clock ticking to determine the locations of other ships. With the quagga mussel, it’s carpet debris in the Great Lakes, and it puts a lot of weight on it. Twenty or 30 years ago, Trinidad looked like a ship in a bottle, he said. Because of these invasive species, the vessels are now deteriorating faster, and are essentially covered in what look like warts. As for what ships they try to locate next, people can check their website for updates, otherwise he and Jaeck will keep their next searches close to their chests.

Get more Great Lakes news now:

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Featured Image: The schooner Trinidad as it appears today (Photo credit: Tamara Thomsen and Zach Wittrock, Wisconsin State Historical Society)

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