The Wreck Of The Westmoreland: A Meeting With History

By Pat Piper

Trailer boater Ross Richardson had a passion. Then everything changed when he met it face to face.

Line drawing of the Westmoreland

On July 7, 2010, Ross Richardson was at the Glen Arbor boat ramp next to the Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes in Michigan for a trip out to the nearby Manitou Passage. In fact, this was the reason he told everyone that he bought the 1984 Bayliner Trophy in the first place — to take the family across the passage to the Manitou Islands less than 20 miles offshore. But on this day, he was alone and his plan had nothing to do with family. In fact, the real reason he bought the boat was to find a shipwreck.

"I had spent almost a decade researching anything I could find about the Westmoreland," he recalls. "It was one of the first 200- foot steam-powered ships; they called them "propellers" at the time because that's what pushed them through the water, instead of sails. The passenger ship was used to haul grain and meat on the Great Lakes. Keep this in mind: Roads were almost nonexistent in 1854 and this was six years before the Civil War. The Westmoreland left Chicago on December 2 with supplies for the garrison on Mackinac Island about 300 miles away. The route took it through the 16-milelong Manitou Passage with 34 crew and passengers onboard." At about 2 a.m. on December 7, the ship was in the middle of a snowstorm, driven by winds exceeding 30 knots out of the northwest. It was still south of the coveted Manitou Passage where veteran skippers knew they could seek protection in the lee of both South and North Manitou Islands.

The winds were increasing as were the waves. But that wasn't the big problem faced by the crew. During the previous night, a leak had developed and the steam-powered bilge pumps weren't able to keep up with the ever-increasing water level in the ship. A bucket brigade was set up to assist the pumps, but as the storm grew all the more intense, the water reached the engine, extinguishing its fires, leaving the Westmoreland powerless in the now-20-foot seas and no longer able to point into the waves. Lifeboats were lowered just before the Westmoreland sank below the surface. Fifteen people went down with the ship while two died when their lifeboat crashed onto the shoreline of Platte Bay on the mainland. Others started walking south to Manistee, the nearest town, almost 40 miles away. Seventeen survived the shipwreck.

"I kept thinking to myself about the fact there's a boat sitting out there with such a story to tell," Richardson remembers. "That kind of compelled me to go out looking for it." But his search didn't start on the water; it began with books, phone calls to historians, and, since he was a volunteer at the Almira Township Library, the use of Google News Archives to find digitized accounts of survivors' stories. He read about possible barrels of liquor onboard and a mention or two of gold coins being carried.

And Then ... Bingo!

On that Wednesday in July, Richardson launched his boat to continue surveying an area he had chosen a few weeks earlier. The boat carried a Humminbird 1197 combo Fishfinder/GPS/Sonar with side-scan imaging capability. He had already made a number of runs over the area and was beginning the third square mile of his search when his screen showed an image he hadn't seen before. Richardson hit "mark" on his GPS and slowed the boat, all the time watching the shape continue to slide across the screen. "This thing is big," he thought to himself. As his boat glided above, Richardson realized he was looking at something that was at least 150 feet long, and suddenly he could see the shape of a bow. And then he realized something else: This thing is deep, as in 200-feet-below-the-surface deep. "I never did a fist pumping or any celebration," Ross recalls. "I looked at the fathometer and realized I gotta dive this so my mind was always on the thought of, 'What is going to come next?' Add to that, I was thinking, 'Well, how do I share this?' followed by 'How can I protect this?'"

He pulled out his cell phone and called Jim Sawtelle, a fellow diver who searched for the Westmoreland in the 1950s and '60s. The wreck has been sought since the 1870s when word got around about the possibility of gold sitting on the bottom, waiting for someone to pick it up. "You're not going to believe this," is the way Richardson began their conversation. Both agreed this could be the ship and both understood the fewer words said about it to others, the better. Richardson made a series of passes over the site to get different sonar images and that's when he knew the Westmoreland was sitting beneath his boat.

"I could see the high point of the wreck was 30 feet off the bottom. That had to be the 'hogging arches,' also called 'bishop's trusses,' that stretched 10 to 12 feet above the hull and were designed to strengthen the hull. Lake Michigan waves have those short intervals — the arches were supposed to keep the long hull intact from flexing." With the GPS waypoints set, Richardson headed in with plans to dive the wreck a few days later with his brother Bob onboard to assist.

It's important to understand scuba diving at depths of more than 30 feet (the typical depth beginners learn on vacation) requires stops on the way down, and on the way up. At 200 feet, a diver has only a limited amount of "bottom time" because the descent has to be careful and the ascent requires stopping at certain levels to allow for decompression. Richardson figured he had time for about 10 minutes max on the bottom.

"I planned to bounce down, take a look and come back up," he remembers. "I bought an underwater video camera two years before on eBay for $95 — yeah, it's real primitive, but it worked. And when I was about 150 feet down, I could see the bow of an enormous ship. I stopped 10 feet off the deck, there was no current, the water temperature was 39 degrees, and I had about 50 feet visibility with lots of ambient light. I could see the arches, and they were upright and in perfect shape. I went back further to see if the engine and boiler were there (they were) and I could see four lifeboat davits. The story is one of those davits hooked the lifeboat when it was launched and flipped it. Fifteen people died. So I stopped and spent a moment going through all I had read about the crew's efforts to save themselves. 'Wow,' I remember thinking, 'the last people who saw this died here 150 years ago.' It gave me an eerie feeling. I decided to go to the stern and could see a big 4-foot-diameter ship's wheel, known as the auxiliary helm. That's when I knew it was a virgin wreck because the helm is the first thing to be taken by salvagers. The ship is sitting upright and the hull is only a couple of feet into the sand. Two tips of the prop blades are in the sand."

Back home, Ross Richardson told his wife and sons what he'd done that day, and together they watched the video. The Westmoreland was his first solo discovery and all that research had provided the proverbial payoff. But then, the real world came back into focus.

"The next day I got up and walked to the kitchen and thought, 'Gee, I found the shipwreck, and this is really cool,'" he said reflectively while looking at the sink. "'Now it's time to do the dishes.' It's one of the passions of my life and I had a very exciting thing happen, but back to reality and here are the dishes. I was feeling humbled by the experience of the previous day."

Now What ?

Part of feeling humbled included a sense of protecting the ship. Within the next few years, he intends to make public the waypoint coordinates for the Westmoreland. "I'm going to bring friends out there — people who will dive it with me. But my fear is that once the numbers get out, charter boats are going to want to dive it, no matter what the weather conditions and hook onto the boat in heavy seas and start pulling it apart. This is a gravesite. It can be an underwater museum."

As for the gold? Richardson hasn't seen any and, yes, he's looked a few times. His family has plans to cross Manitou Passage this summer, but they won't be stopping at you-know-where. After all, that's why they have a boat. 

This article was published in Summer 2012 issue of Trailering Magazine.


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