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This week, the mystery of the disappearance of the USS Keystone State, a Civil War-era steamer that went missing more than 150 years ago on the Great Lakes, was solved.
The ship went missing on November 9, 1861, while transporting goods recorded as “iron implements” or farming equipment from Detroit to Milwaukee.
The disappearance came just months after the the Civil War began in April of 1861. Veteran shipwreck hunter David Trotter, 72, tells Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson that the ship may have actually contained military equipment for a special militia that was building up in Wisconsin.
Trotter’s Undersea Research Associates team discovered the wreck in July, less than 200 feet deep in the waters of Lake Huron, and 50 miles from where it was reportedly last seen.
Trotter talks about what he discovered about the ship.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
This is HERE AND NOW.
And now to an amazing discovery of a ship that sank more than 150 years ago in Lake Huron. The announcement came this week from Trotter's Undersea Research Associates that in July, they discovered a side-wheel steamship called the Keystone State. The ship was found underneath about 200 feet of water about 50 miles north of the Thumb of Michigan. It went missing along with 32 crewmembers and the ship's captain in November of 1861.
There's been a lot of speculation about the cargo that was on it, which was listed as farm equipment on the manifesto. But given the timing, it appears more likely the ship was carrying military supplies for use in the Civil War. Shipwreck hunter David Trotter made the discovery, and he's with us now from Michigan Radio in Ann Arbor. And, wow, this must have been really exciting for you.
DAVID TROTTER: Well, we were certainly surprised and very excited because she was the last major side-wheel steamer that we knew to be lost in Lake Huron, and she had a vexing or peculiar history.
HOBSON: Were you looking for her when you found her?
TROTTER: Well, yes. But one could say that certainly I could have potentially found her 20 years ago when we were searching in the last known sighting or the area where she was last seen on Lake Huron.
HOBSON: But she was 50 miles away from there, right?
TROTTER: That's correct. And that further kind of explained some of the interesting events that apparently unfolded back in 1861 during the Civil War time period as to her extensive disappearance without any knowledge about what happened to her.
HOBSON: Well - and just to bring listeners up to date on this, the ship was bound for Milwaukee. It left Detroit on November 8, 1861. And the cargo was labeled iron implements, which would have meant farm machinery. But, as you say, that was not probably what was on the ship.
TROTTER: Well, the question that many of us dealt with in years looking for this ship was why she would be moving in November iron implements to Milwaukee which, if you think about farming, it doesn't happen in the middle of the winter.
HOBSON: Pretty cold.
TROTTER: And it was often that goods would be concealed and perhaps mislabeled in an effort to move them particularly during the early points of the Civil War.
HOBSON: Probably carrying military supplies to whom?
TROTTER: Well, there was a Wisconsin militia that was being rapidly developed at that point that may well have had need for certain types of equipment that would have been useful in the early parts of the Civil War.
HOBSON: Were there bodies inside?
TROTTER: No. No bodies. And in this instance, because of what we found and how we found her, we can literally describe what we think happened to that crew of 32 and the captain. And it is that if she fought her way North, she would have began to leak as the ship would have worked in that horrific gale. And water would have started to come into the hull inside, and they would have been trying to pump it out with bilge pumps. They had to keep the fires stoked in the boiler to keep the paddle wheels moving.
And eventually, the water would have gotten up high enough to put the fires out. And at that point, the crew and the captain would have clambered up onto the upper part of the ship and begin to throw parts of the ship off in an effort to be able to jump in the water and cling to those. And when she sank, there would have been other debris that would have popped up because the air escaping from the hull would have knocked some of the (unintelligible), as we call them, free and people would have been on those.
But in a matter of hours, they would have succumbed to the hypothermia and simply disappeared into the Great Lakes at that point, just within a few hours of the sinking.
HOBSON: You can tell all that just by seeing the ship down underwater?
TROTTER: Yes, we can because their empty cargo holds also told us something else. And this is not the first time we've recorded this happening, that when she was in serious trouble they would have began to pitch the cargo over the side in an effort to lighten her and perhaps give her a greater chance of survival, realizing that they had no lifeboats.
HOBSON: How far offshore did it sink?
TROTTER: Well, it sank about 40 miles offshore.
HOBSON: Oh, wow.
TROTTER: And that was another indication of the difficulty she was in because if she had run the standard freighter line that you would have expected, she would have only been 10 or 12 miles offshore instead of nearly 40, which told you that she did her best to continue up. It simply got pushed further out into Lake Huron.
HOBSON: Now you found the Keystone State using side-scan sonar. Is that right?
TROTTER: That's correct.
HOBSON: What does that mean? How do you find that?
TROTTER: Well, it is a piece if equipment where you take a torpedo-like device and you place it over the back of the boat and attach it to several hundred foot of cable. And there's wiring in the cable, and that fish(ph) is sending out a horizontal sound pulse so that it goes across the bottom, and it's returned it comes back up the cable and you look at the printout on a screen. And then an experienced operator will interpret what is being looked at.
HOBSON: But why were you looking so far away from where you knew that this ship had gone down or where you thought the ship had gone down?
TROTTER: Well, because I had already covered about 2,000 square miles in Lake Huron in a 35-year search effort looking for many of these ships. And certainly at this point, I had thought that perhaps we had simply missed it to unfortunate circumstances. But certainly, we were just tickled and very surprised when we found those beautiful side wheels still intact, you know, on the floor of Lake Huron, which did identify her as the Keystone State.
HOBSON: Have you ever found gold, and do you get to keep it if you do?
TROTTER: No. We've never - there was an issue that perhaps there was gold involved with the Keystone State, but we've seen no evidence of that. And, of course, gold in the Great Lakes is not as likely to happen. This part of the country was built with arteries of commerce for immigrants, for moving farm produce, bringing packaged goods. And it's not the gold and silver we often relate to Florida events or further down South.
HOBSON: A lot of people may wonder why you do this because you could understand why somebody would want to go looking for a ship that was filled with gold. But something that's filled with maybe, you know, military equipment, why is that so exciting for you?
TROTTER: It's a passion for the Great Lakes and the marine history. I've been involved actively as a diver and as a shipwreck hunter since the '70s. And you realize that the whole Midwest was built basically on the arteries of commerce that represented the Great Lakes. At one time, there were as many as four to 5,000 ships on the Great Lakes at one time. An entire economy was built off this enormous navigational situation.
HOBSON: How does the discovery of the Keystone State rank amongst your discoveries?
TROTTER: Well, it's certainly one of the most interesting because her disappearance when she was last seen, there was no record of what happened to her for 10 or 12 days before they finally found a little bit of debris. And that debris, again, would have further misled you if you relied on that as to her location. So she was really as far as a hundred miles away from some of the debris sighting that was found.
So it was really my continuing effort over many years that finally produced a sight. And what we do is we document them and then we share these stories in a way of programs that describe what's going on with the lakes, missing ships and what we've discovered and documented over the years.
HOBSON: What's your next adventure?
TROTTER: Well, the most exciting shipwreck I found is always the next one.
HOBSON: But you don't know what's that going to be yet.
TROTTER: No. I have about six or eight on my list that I would certainly like to find that are significant to Great Lakes and maritime history.
HOBSON: Well, let us know if you find anything.
TROTTER: Will do that.
HOBSON: David Trotter is a shipwreck hunter. He joined us from Michigan Radio in Ann Arbor. David, thanks so much.
TROTTER: Well, thank you.
HOBSON: You know, Meghna, what amazes me about this is that you fly over the Great Lakes now. Sometimes when I fly into Chicago, you can actually see both sides, both shorelines at the same time. To think that such a dramatic sinking of a ship could go down so far from the shore in these lakes back in those days is quite amazing.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:
It is. They're named Great Lakes for a reason, aren't they?
HOBSON: Absolutely. From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson.
CHAKRABARTI: I'm Meghna Chakrabarti. Robin Young is back on Monday. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.