On the early morning of May 11, 1881, Capt. John Higgins and his eight-man crew scurried onto a lifeboat and caught a final glimpse of their schooner, Trinidad, as it disappeared into the icy waters of Lake Michigan.
After 142 years, its wreckage has finally been discovered.
In July, the shipwreck hunters Brendon Baillod and Robert Jaeck found the impressively intact wreckage of Trinidad lying underneath roughly 300 feet of water, about 10 miles off the shoreline of Algoma, Wis. That concluded a two-year search for the little-known vessel Mr. Baillod said was “little more than a floating coffin” at the time of its final voyage.
Trinidad was built at Grand Island, N.Y., in 1867 and was used as a cargo ship in the lucrative grain trade between Milwaukee, Chicago and Oswego, N.Y., according to a news release.
“A lot of these schooners were built for one thing,” Mr. Baillod said in a phone interview on Friday evening. “And that was to make millionaires.”
Cities along the East Coast at the time relied on wheat from the Midwest that was hauled on schooners via the Great Lakes, said Mr. Baillod, who is the president of the Wisconsin Underwater Archaeology Association and wrote a book cataloging over 400 Wisconsin ships and shipwrecks.
“If you lived in Philadelphia, Boston or New York in the 1860s and ’70s and you’re eating a sandwich, the bread in that sandwich was almost certainly grown in Wisconsin and brought on a schooner,” Mr. Baillod said.
The 140-foot Trinidad was described in a newspaper article of the time as “one of the finest schooners” ever seen, Mr. Baillod added, but it had one problem.
Insurance records show that the ship was poorly maintained by its owners, he said.
“Most schooners of her era lasted two to three times longer than she did,” Mr. Baillod said.
Trinidad was plagued by constant leaks. In late 1880, Captain Higgins docked the boat at Port Huron, Mich., in the middle of a voyage because he did not trust it to withstand the November gales on the Great Lakes, Mr. Baillod said.
Captain Higgins waited until spring to resume the ill-fated voyage. Trinidad began to take on water the morning it sank. The ship’s water pumps were overmatched, and Captain Higgins and the crew decided to abandon it.
The men rowed for hours on a lifeboat through shivering-cold waters to reach the shore at Algoma. They were battered, and stricken with hypothermia, but they survived. A Newfoundland dog aboard Trinidad was less fortunate. He went down with the ship.
Mr. Baillod and Mr. Jaeck began their search for Trinidad two years ago. The ship was an ideal candidate for discovery because Captain Higgins had given a detailed account of where it sank.
In July, the pair embarked on a trip targeting a new search area. On the second day of the search, they spotted something on their sonar.
“We had seen a lot of wrecks on sonar before, but we weren’t sure about this,” Mr. Baillod said. “We almost didn’t turn around.”
The length of the wreck matched that of Trinidad. They contacted the Wisconsin Historical Society’s underwater archaeologist, Tamara Thomsen, who soon after arranged for a thorough survey of the site.
“We were stunned to see that not only was the deckhouse still on her, but it still had all the cabinets with all the dishes stacked in them and all the crew’s effects,” Mr. Baillod said, adding “It’s really like a ship in a bottle. It’s a time capsule.”
“She’s not the only ship that’s in really good shape out in Wisconsin waters, but I’d say she’s top two or three,” he said.
Mr. Baillod said he hoped to have the wreck added to the National Register of Historic Places next year and planned to release the exact location of the site.
“These are resources that are held in public stewardship, owned by the public,” he said. “They should be visible by the public.”