Team finds 152-year-old shipwreck

HARRISVILLE -Twenty-five to 30 miles northeast of Harrisville lies the recently discovered wreck of the sidewheel steamer Keystone State.

Discovered in July by veteran shipwreck hunter David Trotter and his crew, the vessel is approximately 175 feet below the surface, and is mostly in pieces, except for its two paddle wheels which stand upright against the bottom of Lake Huron. The wooden sidewheel steamer was heading from Detroit to Milwaukee when it sank in 1861 in a November storm, taking all 33 crew-members down with her.

The Keystone State has been a mystery for shipwreck enthusiasts and historians because of its different rumored cargo accounts, and the urgency in which the steamer left port.

“She simply disappeared and there was no evidence for days and days,” Trotter said. “The question really was, what possibly could have happened to her, and that mystery has been going on for 152 years.”

Trotter said when the vessel left port, past accounts said she left in a hurry with a cargo of iron implements, which usually meant farm implements. One of the many questions about her cargo include rumors of possibly moving military supplies to Milwaukee militias, but even with the discovery of the wreck, none of the Keystone’s cargo has been found.

“She left in such a hurry that she left without life boats, which further added to the mystery of her departure,” Trotter said. “Now we realize that she made it much further up the lake than was previously known or considered. Unfortunately there is still the unknown of what cargo she was carrying.”

The steamer was found much further north than Trotter had expected, due to the accounts of the last known sighting of the vessel.

“There was no reason to think she was this far north,” Trotter said. “When she arrived off of Port Austin, that was the last time she was ever seen. She literally at that point just simply sailed into oblivion. The only evidence of her loss came days later … all from the thumb down. It was a logical assumption that her position was somewhere near the Thumb or below it.”

Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary deputy superintendent Russ Green said it is exciting anytime a wreck is discovered, and he looks forward to learning more about it.

“When a ship disappears like that, it adds to the drama,” he said. “It’s a really interesting story.”

Maritime historian C. Patrick Labadie said the vessel was one of the first ships that weighed more than 1,000 tons, and was known as a palace steamer based on the elegant rooms and accents.

Labadie said he is excited to learn more about the steamer and her story from the wreckage accounts of Trotter and his crew.

Trotter said he dispaired he would never find the Keystone State after searching in the Thumb during 1993. Therefore, when Trotter and his crew did find the steamer, and it was around 40 to 50 miles above Port Austin, they were surprised the ship had made it so far north.

“Somehow she struggled forward and managed to work up the lake, even in the terrible storm,” Trotter said. “As she struggled up north she would have even more difficulty trying to maintain course which ultimately caused the vessel to end up out in the middle of the lake. I can paint a very graphic picture of her final hours.”

Trotter said the crew eventually would have decided to pitch the cargo over the side to lighten the ship, which explains the absense of cargo at the wreck site. Water would have continued to come in, bilge pumps would be running to try and decrease the leakage but would lose headway as water was coming in faster than they could pump out.

Finally, the water would reach the fire boxes in the boiler and douse the fire, leaving the vessel at the mercy of the storm with no power. The crew would know what was going to happen since they had no life boats, so they would start tieing things together to have something to climb onto or grab ahold of when the ship sank.

“They know it’s going to sink. At this point they are facing the end of the ship,” Trotter said. “There would be people clamoring onto parts they had stripped or thrown into the water and eventually the ship would just disappear very quickly and thrust herself to the bottom. What’s left is some of the debris, and people holding onto it. In the horrific conditions in November, hypothermia would take over.”

There were never any bodies found from the Keystone State.

The wreckage gives some clues to historians about the possible condition of the steamer just before it sank. Trotter said the steamer suffered substantially on the surface and substantially when it hit the bottom .

“Her paddle wheels are beautifully entact. Her big engine is there. The boilers are just tremendously beautiful sights,” he said. “She has less intactness than we might have hoped. She had tremendous working damage during the time she was working her way north.”

The discovery of the Keystone State offers historians a rare opportunity to view a mid 1800s vessel, and peek into the lives of that time period.

Nicole Grulke can be reached via email at or by phone at 358-5687. Follow Nicole on Twitter @ng_alpenanews.