MILWAUKEE — A great wooden steamship that sank more than a century ago in a violent Lake Michigan storm has been found off the Milwaukee-area shoreline, and divers say the intact vessel appears to have been perfectly preserved by the cold fresh waters.
Finding the 300-foot-long L.R. Doty was important because it was the largest wooden ship that remained unaccounted for, said Brendon Baillod, the president of the Wisconsin Underwater Archaeology Association.
“It’s the biggest one I’ve been involved with,” said Baillod, who has taken part in about a dozen such finds. “It was really exhilarating.”
The Doty was carrying a cargo of corn from South Chicago to Ontario, Canada in October 1898 when it sailed into a terrible storm, Baillod said. Along with snow and sleet, there were heavy winds that created waves of up to 30 feet.
The Doty should have been able to handle the weather. The ship was only five years old, and the 300-foot wooden behemoth’s hull was reinforced with steel arches.
But it was towing a small schooner, the Olive Jeanette, which began to founder in the storm after the tow line apparently snapped, Baillod said.
The Doty probably sank when it came to the schooner’s aid. All 17 of its crewmembers died, along with the ship’s cats, Dewey and Watson.
As a maritime historian Baillod spent more than 20 years researching the shipwreck. He knew that swaths of debris had washed up afterward in Kenosha, about 40 miles south of Milwaukee. But he found news accounts that it had last been seen closer to Milwaukee, near Oak Creek.
Meanwhile, a Milwaukee fisherman in 1991 reported snagging his nets on an obstruction about 300 feet under water. The observation was largely forgotten for decades until diving technology improved enough to enable exploration at that depth.