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Team locates shipwreck off shore of Algoma

Vintage photo of the Great Lakes schooner Trinidad
The schooner Trinidad wintering in Ontario in 1873. John S. Rochon photo

By Kris Leonhardt


ALGOMA – Maritime historians, Brendon Baillod and Robert Jaeck, say that they have located the wreckage of the Great Lakes schooner Trinidad in the waters of Lake Michigan in about 270 feet of water offshore from Algoma.

The Trinidad was a 140-foot schooner built in Grand Island, N.Y., in 1867 by William Keefe.

The schooner was used in grain trade commerce between Milwaukee, Chicago and New York, and was lost in May 1881 after passing through the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal headed for Milwaukee.

“The schooner Trinidad, coal laden and bound up from Port Huron, foundered due east of Ahnapee, ten miles out, at 4:45 Wednesday morning. The crew consisting of eight men were saved and reached land in the vessel’s yawl,” a May 21, 1881, Green Bay Weekly Gazette article stated.

According to an April Weekly Gazette article from that year, the vessel at that time was owned by Holt & Balcom of Oconto who had purchased the schooner just a month earlier.

“Unfortunately, Trinidad’s owners didn’t invest much in the vessel’s upkeep and her career was relatively short for her era.  Insurance records show that the vessel was worth $22,000 in 1867, but by 1878, her value had dropped by half.  Her hull had started to leak and her captain was nearly killed by a block that fell from her decayed rigging.  By 1879, she was no longer fit to carry precious grain cargoes and her owners decided to sell her,” Baillod said in a recounting of the incident.

“The beginning of the end came in May of 1880 when the Trinidad was contracted to take a coal cargo up to the mines on Silver Islet in Lake Superior.  It was an unfamiliar run for the aged vessel and she struck a reef upon approaching the pier, tearing out ten feet of her bottom. She was salvaged and taken to the lower Lakes where she was hastily repaired and put back in service. Her owners then sent her with a final cargo of coal bound for Milwaukee in November of 1880, but her Captain, John Higgins, realizing that she was in poor repair, decided to lay her up for the winter at Port Huron, only halfway through her trip.

“The next spring, Higgins and the eight-man crew set out from Port Huron in heavy spring ice.  Passing through the Straits of Mackinac on May 5, the schooner reported thick ice and needed the assistance of a tug boat to break through. By May 10, the Trinidad had made it to through the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal and headed down the shore of Lake Michigan toward Milwaukee in moderate waves.

“The vessel had been leaking slowly for a few years so little concern was felt when the mate informed the captain of rising water in the hold.  The crew was set to the pumps, but the water continued to rise.  The Trinidad had been fitted with extra pumps, so Captain Higgins maintained his course.  Then, at 4:45 a.m., the vessel suddenly lurched forward and began to sink rapidly.  Captain Higgins and the crew had no time to gather their personal effects and immediately launched their small yawl-boat from the stern.

Brendon Baillod, Bob Jaeck and Tom Crossmon of Crossmon Consulting survey the Trinidad wreckage. Tamara Thomsen photo

“The vessel settled so fast that the ship’s mascot, a large Newfoundland dog asleep by the cabin stove, was unable to escape and went down with the vessel. Most of the men didn’t have their coats or rain gear and were quickly chilled.  Captain Higgins ordered the crew to pull for the lights of Ahnapee, (present-day Algoma, Wisconsin) nearly ten miles distant. The men battled the waves for nearly eight hours, making shore at about 2 p.m.”

The ship’s wreckage was located by Baillod and Jaeck in July using survivor accounts in historical records.

The pair have been “wreckhunting” together for over two and a half decades.

“I met Bob back in 1997 when we were both diving shipwrecks in the Milwaukee area.  He has been my wreckhunting partner for almost 30 years and we have found several wrecks together over the years.  We both have ‘pet projects’ for wreckhunting.  Sometimes we go after one of Bob’s wrecks, sometimes one of mine.  This happened to be one that I was interested in and had researched,” Baillod said.

“The search process primarily involves collecting historical information from news archives, from old vessel insurance registers, antique nautical charts, etc.  We then synthesize the information to create a search grid which we plot on a map.  We then go out with remote sensing equipment and ‘mow the lawn,’ covering the search grid whilst being sure to overlap our runs so as not to miss anything.  In this case, we had a grid of about 25 square miles that took us two days to cover.”

The pair found the wreckage during their second day of the search near the location the captain stated it had gone down.

“It is notable that there were several different accounts, each giving a slightly different location.  We had accounts stating she was 7 miles, 8 miles, 10 miles, 12 miles and 13 miles off Ahnapee.  As such, it wasn’t a slam dunk to find her,” Baillod added.

“When we saw the target crawl across the screen, we weren’t actually all that stoked because it wasn’t particularly distinct.  At 1,250 feet per channel, a 140-foot ship doesn’t look like much. When we turned back to vet the target at lower speed and higher resolution, it was much more distinct.”

A video of the moment of discovery chronicles an excited but apprehensive Baillod and Jaeck locating the wreck.

The team reached out to the Wisconsin State Historical Society to report and confirm their findings.

“Tamara Thomsen, Wisconsin’s State Underwater Archeologist, arranged for the site to be surveyed by Crossmon Consulting using a commercial Remote Operated Vehicle (ROV) with a forward-looking sonar.  This enabled the vessel’s hull to be measured with extreme accuracy.  The dimensions of the hull were then compared to the historical dimensions given on the vessel’s original customs house enrollment documents and her identity was confirmed,” Baillod said.

“The vessel was indeed remarkably intact, with her deck house still in place, containing the crew’s possessions, dishes, anchors, bell and many other artifacts from the day of her loss in May of 1881.  Thomsen returned with diver Zach Whitrock to photographically document the artifacts on the wreck and to construct a 3D photogrammetry model of the wreck.  3,600 high-resolution images were taken by Whitrock during a 3 hour and 20-minute technical dive to the wreck.”

With assistance from the state historical society, the team is now nominating the Trinidad for the National Register of Historic Places.

A 3D model of the schooner can be viewed at www.youtube.com/watch?v=o8xESmKJQ6ghttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o8xESmKJQ6g.

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