It’s a dark night in 1878 on the deep waters of Lake Michigan as two great schooners make their way through the mist. But with visibility so low, calamity strikes. The two vessels collide, never to deliver their cargoes of vital supplies. And as they sink without trace, the wrecks of these two great vessels are destined to remain unseen for more than 130 years.
There's something beneath the surface
In 2010 underwater explorer Bernie Hellstrom was sailing near Beaver Island, some 30 miles off the north-eastern shore of the lake. The trip was expected to offer nothing out of the ordinary – but then he discovered a large object lurking hundreds of feet below the surface. Nine years later, he returned to find out more.
On closer inspection, Hellstrom discovered the preserved remains of our two ancient schooners lying on the lake bed. But at first, the identity of the vessels remained an enigma. Although the large hole in one ship certainly indicated a devastating accident, experts could not locate any historical records detailing any such maritime mishap. So what was the story behind these haunting wrecks?
Untouched for a century
Eventually, historian Brendon Baillod uncovered the truth about the two vessels lying beneath the surface of Lake Michigan. Back in 1878 – less than two decades after the end of the Civil War – they had met their mutual doom in the early hours of June 25. But how had their wrecks remained undiscovered for well over a century?
Unveiling what actually happened
As Baillod unraveled the events of 1878 he established the identity of the two ships: the Peshtigo and the St. Andrew. Until recently, experts had believed that these lost vessels lay some 50 miles away, beneath the waters of neighboring Lake Huron. Now, thanks to some skilled maritime detective work, their true fate has been revealed.
A hulking ship
Constructed at the Merry and Gay shipyard in Milan, Ohio, in 1857, the St. Andrew had been built just before the outbreak of the Civil War. A huge craft by 19th-century standards, it weighed in at 426 tons and measured more than 140 feet in length. On top, two sturdy masts should have ensured steady progress through the perilous waters of the Great Lakes.
Equipped with massive sails
But although the St. Andrew was a big ship, the Peshtigo was even bigger. In fact, it was the largest vessel ever built by Thomas Spears, a shipwright based in the Wisconsin city of Peshtigo. At 161 feet long, it weighed more than 380 tons and bore three masts equipped with billowing sails.
Surviving the war
Unlike the St. Andrew, the Peshtigo was built in 1863, when the Civil War was in full swing. Fortunately, though, it survived the bloody conflict to become a cargo schooner carrying goods across the Great Lakes. But on June 25, 1878, this vocation was cut tragically short.
Two fateful journeys
Having left Erie in Pennsylvania, the Peshtigo was traveling south along Lake Michigan towards Chicago, carrying a hold full of corn. But at the same time, the St. Andrew was loaded up with coal and headed north from Illinois, ultimately bound for Buffalo, New York. Unfortunately, neither of the vessels would complete their journeys.
Hazy conditions; low visibility
According to a newspaper report published the following day, the Peshtigo and the St. Andrew collided at about 1:00 a.m. Apparently, conditions were hazy, and in the darkness there was some confusion over signalling between the vessels. And by the time that the crews realized they were dangerously close, it was too late to avert disaster.
Force of impact
Steering sharply to port, the Peshtigo struck the hull of the St. Andrew, leaving a deep gash that went all the way to the water line. At the time, most of the men were sleeping in the cabins below, but the force of the collision soon jolted them awake. When they arrived on deck, a scene of chaos awaited them.
Drop the lifeboats!
Reeling from the impact, the St. Andrew toppled over and crashed into the Peshtigo’s deck, taking out two of its masts in the process. As the men escaped on lifeboats, the schooners began to sink. And within just ten minutes, they had disappeared beneath the surface.
Escaping the collision
Thankfully, most of the men on board the two vessels escaped the sinking with their lives. But the ships themselves, like thousands of others, were lost to the waters of the Great Lakes. So why did it take so long for divers to locate them? Well as previously mentioned, for a long time the wreck of the St. Andrew was thought to lie somewhere else entirely.
Apparently, historians were not clear exactly where the two schooners had gone down that fateful night. But one day, divers spotted something interesting beneath the surface of Lake Huron. Located to the east of Lake Michigan, this body of water is connected to its neighbor via a stretch known as the Straits of Mackinac.
A likely candidate
There, some 65 feet beneath the surface, divers located the wreck of a schooner similar in shape and size to the St. Andrew. But its dimensions weren't the only thing that made it a likely candidate for the vessel lost in 1878. On its mast, divers found what is known as a stepping coin – a penny placed there before the ship’s launch. And its date was 1857 – the same year that the doomed vessel was built.
So where is the St. Andrew?
This, then, was surely the wreck of the St. Andrew? For a long time, divers explored the site, confident that they were looking at the remains of that fateful collision. But one question remained – where was the Peshtigo? After all, the two vessels were said to have sunk alongside one another.
Something unusual in the water
Despite the fact that no second wreck was ever located in the area, most continued to believe that the vessel beneath Lake Huron was indeed the St. Andrew. Then in 2010 the story began to unravel. That year, Hellstrom was sailing near Beaver Island on Lake Michigan when he spotted something unusual in the waters beneath.
An experienced diver based in Boyne City, MI, 63-year-old Hellstrom had been in the region many times before. Speaking to news agency the Associated Press (AP) in 2019 he said, “I’ve made hundreds of trips to Beaver Island and every time I go out the sounder is on.” In other words, he uses sonar to scan the lake bed for any interesting objects.
This was definitely not just fish
While sailing between Beaver Island and North Fox Island, a smaller outcrop some 30 miles to the southwest, Hellstrom was alerted to an obstruction lurking in the depths below. He said, “If you happen to see something that’s not normal, you go back. A lot are nothing but fish schools.” But this, he could tell, was something far more substantial.
Sonar picked it up
Straight away, Hellstrom suspected that the object was a large wreck, probably around 400 feet in length. But although a number of ships have been lost on the Great Lakes over the years, he could think of none in the area that were so large. So what had he found? For years, he puzzled over the mystery.
In June 2019 Hellstrom was finally able to return to the site and, using specialist photographic equipment, take a peek at the obstruction that he had detected nine years before. What he found would truly blow him away. Located some 200 feet beneath the surface was what appeared to be an eerie graveyard of historic ships.
Unable to identify
Even with this discovery, though, Hellstrom had no idea what the story of these sunken vessels could be. Of course, he wanted to take a closer look – but that wasn’t a simple task. Because of its depth, it seems, the wreck site was inaccessible to recreational divers and required a team with advanced skills.
Call in the divers
So, Hellstrom called in John Scoles and John Janzen, a pair of professional divers, to help him explore the unknown wrecks. Boarding a specialist vessel, they headed out to the spot where the anomaly was located. And as they plunged into the cold waters of Lake Michigan, they took cameras with them to record what they found.
How was it so far away?
Hundreds of feet beneath the surface, Scoles and Janzen’s cameras recorded some incredible footage of the site – and helped to finally unravel the mystery. So how did the team figure out that they were looking at the wrecks of the St. Andrew and the Peshtigo? And what were the vessels doing in Lake Michigan, some 50 miles east of their presumed location in Lake Huron?
Well-preserved and peaceful
When viewed, Scoles and Janzen’s footage revealed two Civil War-era ships lying just ten feet away from each other on the lake bed. But these were no ravaged, barely-distinguishable wrecks. Instead, they were remarkably well-preserved, telling a clear story about how they had come to rest in their watery grave.
Resting side by side
As the divers glided past, they spotted the vessels’ toppled masts, covered in barnacles and intertwined with one another. Further forward sat the remains of the two bows, sitting silently side by side. And in the hull of one ship, a large gash hinted at the reason why these vessels were below the waves and not above them.
Reclaimed by the lake
In fact, the wrecks were full of fascinating relics which had been frozen in time. From intact wheels to hoisted anchors, they all added to the feeling that these were recent vessels, rather than ones that sank 140 years in the past. But based on the appearance of the schooners, it was clear that the team were dealing with a pair of historic ships.
The right person to help
Back on the surface, Hellstrom puzzled over the identity of the sunken vessels. After all, there was not supposed to be anything as significant as this lurking in these waters. So, he turned to Baillod to help solve the riddle. A marine historian who specializes in Great Lakes shipwrecks, he was well placed to help out.
Matching the dimensions
At first, though, Baillod was just as puzzled as everyone else. Of course, he was aware of the St. Andrew and the Peshtigo, and knew that these schooners, like the ones at Hellstrom’s site, had sunk together. What’s more, they were of the right age and dimensions to match this latest find.
But most people, it seemed, thought that the wreck of the St. Andrew had already been located beneath the waters of Lake Huron. Intrigued, Baillod turned to the history books for answers. And before long, he discovered something interesting. Apparently, there were conflicting reports as to where the two vessels had actually sunk.
According to some, the St. Andrew and the Peshtigo hadn’t gone down in Lake Huron at all. Instead, they had collided in Lake Michigan, somewhere between Beaver Island and the mainland city of Charlevoix. If this version of events was true, Baillod realized, it would put the vessels close to the site of Hellstrom’s wrecks.
We're gonna need more data
Were these, then, the remains of the St. Andrew and the Peshtigo, rather than some unidentified vessels? And if so, what was the identity of the wreck at the bottom of Lake Huron? To find out, Scoles and Janzen conducted a number of additional dives down to the Lake Michigan site.
Identifying the ships
On closer inspection, the team found a number of clues that confirmed the true identity of the two ill-fated schooners. From the appearance and specifications of the vessels to the coal cargo still strewn across the lake bed, it soon became clear that they were indeed the St. Andrew and the Peshtigo.
Fantastic discovery, indeed
According to maritime archaeologist Wayne Lusardi, the Lake Huron wreck had simply been misidentified as the St. Andrew for many years. Speaking to the AP, he confirmed that the team’s find represented a “fantastic discovery.” And, like other sites in the area, it will provide a unique opportunity to learn more about the Great Lakes’ fascinating past.
Looking for the first time
“You can argue that any new discovery is important because it really gives you a first-time look at something that has been lost and missing for such a long time,” Lusardi continued. But while experts seek to learn more about the newly-discovered wreck, one mystery remains. What is the identity of the mystery ship still lying at the bottom of Lake Huron?
According to the website of the Straits of Mackinac Shipwreck Preserve, which monitors sites such as the Lake Huron wreck, enthusiasts are still trying to solve that puzzle. Apparently, they have already identified a likely candidate, although there is one problem. While its stepping coin has been dated to 1857, research has shown that the candidate vessel was launched two years beforehand.
Not the first unidentified wreck
Of course, it’s not the first time that amateur wreck-hunters have played an important role in unraveling the secrets of Lake Michigan. Back in 2011 for example, two treasure-seekers from Michigan stumbled upon a shipwreck while searching for a lost stash of gold. And later, they announced that it could be the Griffin, a vessel lost back in 1679.
An ill-fated journey
According to records, the Griffin was once captained by René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, a French fur trader famous for exploring the Great Lakes. But on the vessel’s maiden voyage, he parted ways with his crew on an unknown island in Lake Michigan. Shortly afterwards, the ship and all who were manning it disappeared.
Has this centuries-old riddle finally been solved? While the jury is still out on the 2011 discovery, another Lake Michigan mystery has been definitively put to rest. In July 2020 a team of Minnesotan wreck-hunters located the remains of the S.S. Pere Marquette 18, a railway ferry that sank in 1910.
Hoping for more answers
For more than 100 years, the location of the Pere Marquette 18’s wreck was unknown – as was the cause of its fatal sinking. But now, thanks to the efforts of dedicated underwater explorers, its story is finally being told. On the other side of Lake Michigan, historians are hoping that the discovery of the St. Andrew and the Peshtigo will yield similarly fascinating results.