Major Shipwreck Discovery in Lake Michigan

150 Year Old Mystery Solved

Boyne City, Michigan, September 12, 2019 - A group of maritime history enthusiasts have announced the discovery of the schooners Peshtigo and St. Andrews, lost in 1878 in northern Lake Michigan.  The site was located in 2010 by long-time Boyne City, Michigan diver and explorer, Bernie Hellstrom during one of his many trips to explore the Beaver Island archipelago.  Hellstrom frequently monitors his bottom sounder during his explorations and was perplexed by a huge obstruction on the bottom in around 200 feet of water in a remote area between Beaver Island and North Fox Island. 

Using a custom-made camera system, Hellstrom first viewed the obstruction in June 2019 and was amazed to find a literal ship graveyard in the depths beneath his boat.  The massive remains of two Civil War era tall ships lay on the bottom, only ten feet apart in an amazing state of preservation, their masts laying over on each other and a cargo of coal strewn across the Lake bottom.  A huge gash in one of the hulls clearly showed that the vessels had collided and sank quickly.

For marine historian Brendon Baillod, Hellstrom's find presented a real mystery, as no matching historical schooner collision was known within 50 miles of the find.  Experienced technical divers John Janzen and John Scoles were recruited to descend to the eerie site, which lies beyond normal sport diving depths. Paul Ehorn, with his specialized dive boat, was also called in to handle the technical diver surface support.  During the deep, remote dive, Janzen and Scoles recorded amazing, high definition video of the site, revealing evidence of a dramatic and violent disaster in the distant past.

The video caused Baillod to re-examine a collision thought to have occurred over 50 miles away on Lake Huron.  For years, divers and historians had believed that the collision of the schooners St. Andrews and Peshtigo had occurred in the eastern Straits of Mackinac based on an 1857 flying eagle penny found in the mast step of a wreck attributed to the St. Andrews.  Despite accounts that the St. Andrews and Peshtigo sank immediately, the wreck of the Peshtigo was never found in the area of the alleged St. Andrews wreck, despite searches.  Baillod consequently re-examined the historical news accounts of the disaster and found that many accounts placed the collision between Beaver Island and Charlevoix in Lake Michigan, very near the location of Hellstrom's discovery.

Subsequent investigation and the dives by Janzen and Scoles have confirmed that the tall ships on the bottom are indeed the St. Andrews and Peshtigo, two iconic Great Lakes sailing ships from the Civil War era.    The Peshtigo was a giant three-masted schooner for her time at 161 feet in length and 384 tons.  She was built in 1863 at Peshtigo, Wisconsin by shipwright Thomas Spears and was the largest vessel ever built there.  The St. Andrews was a two-masted schooner built in 1857 at Milan, Ohio by the shipyard of Merry and Gay and was herself a large vessel for her time at 143 feet and 426 tons. 

The vessels collided at 1AM on June 25, 1878 in dark, hazy conditions.  The St. Andrews was bound from Chicago to Buffalo with a cargo of corn, while the Peshtigo was bound from Erie, PA to Chicago with a coal cargo.  Confusion in signal torches between the two passing vessels caused the Peshtigo to turn hard to port striking the St. Andrews amidships on her port side.  The crews were mostly in quarters asleep at the time, and while the St. Andrews crew were able to quickly evacuate, the Peshtigo lost two men in the confusion, second mate John Aldrich and wheelsman John Boyle.  Upon striking, the St. Andrews fell over onto the Peshtigo, toppling her fore and main mast.  Two of her men jumped onto the Peshtigo and reportedly heard Captain Lynch of the Peshtigo admonish the second mate, saying "John, you done a bad job.  Why didn't you call me?"  The Peshtigo's stern rose 40 feet in the air before she dove for the bottom, creating a vortex that pulled both ships' lifeboats together.  Both ships were on the bottom within ten minutes of the collision.  The crews were picked up by the passing schooner SVR Watson and taken to safety. 

These shipwreck sites are now important historical and archeological resources and are protected by Michigan law from salvage or diver impact.   

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anonymous by Dan Eustice on 9/21/2019

This doesn’t make sense .... you mean to tell me with all these survivors and the crew of the SVR Watson the collision was thought to be in the eastern straits (Lake Huron). Now it is discovered in the Beavers Archipelago. I think documentation, considering three crews would be more accurate as to where they were!

anonymous by Brendon Baillod on 9/22/2019

Hi 1878, word of the loss came out slowly over a week. Early accounts were fairly vague about where the accident happened. The detailed crew accounts were only published a week later and only in a few papers, but they were very clear that the collision happened off Beaver Island. In the 1970s and 80s, when the Lake Huron identification was made, news micro research was much more difficult and divers didn't dig as deeply into the historical accounts because the dimensions matched and they had the 1857 mast step coin. To our eyes in 2019, it may seem like an obvious mistake but having made a few misidentifications myself, I can attest that it's easy to miss the forest through the trees when doing historical research. I was fortunate that Chuck Feltner was very clear in his book that the ID was tentative. Without his detailed notes, I never would have known to investigate the St. Andrews.

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