From Great Lakes Scuttlebutt.....
On Dec. 7, 1854, the passenger ship Westmoreland, caught in a fierce winter storm, foundered in deep waters off South Manitou Island and sank to the bottom of Lake Michigan. Seventeen crewmembers and passengers were lost that day, while another 17 survived, reaching the shore of Platte Bay in lifeboats. Among them were the ship’s captain and first mate. Shortly thereafter, rumors began circulating about the ship’s cargo, said to have included 280 barrels of whiskey and $10,000 in gold coins – at that time, quite a fortune.
For over a century, treasure hunters and divers have launched expeditions from Betsie Bay, attempting to discover the ship and her treasure. Ross Richardson found the wreck of the Westmoreland on July 7, 2010. Richardson has extensively researched the legend and history surrounding the ship as well as his predecessors’ efforts to find it.
Richardson is a Lake Ann real estate agent and a certified SCUBA diver, public safety diver and special deputy with the Benzie County Sheriff’s Department. He has identified and documented many shipwrecks, but admits to having been surprised when, on that day in July, his sonar revealed something unusual in the waters off the Sleeping Bear Dunes – something that should not have been there.
Returning three days later with his brother, Richardson found his reward: at about 200 feet beneath the water, and partly hidden by the topography, was the ghostly passenger ship, parts of its structure rising 30 feet above the sand. The lake had preserved the steamer well. “I was pretty stunned,” he said. “I’d been researching it for a decade and couldn’t believe that I had found it. The ship had been built in 1853, and was an example of great craftsmanship – very elegant and ornate. According to the story, once the captain made it to shore, he stopped off in Glen Arbor and then hiked to Grand Haven. From there, he took a stage coach to Buffalo. After that he can’t be traced. Apparently, he was part owner of the ship and lost a lot of money when it went down. It was the first mate who started the rumors of the treasure. The whole thing adds up to a great story.”
Richardson said that the Westmoreland was probably the best-preserved shipwreck from the 1850s on the planet, due to fact that it rests in fresh water and is protected from underwater currents. “I never felt any current at the wreck site when I was down there,” he said. “The ship is resting in a hole and the underwater geography has protected it. The water is so clear that visibility is good – even at that depth there is enough ambient light to be able to see everything on the deck. It’s an ‘artifact heavy’ wreck – there’s a lot of china and other things down there, but I have gone over every inch of that ship and have not found the rumored gold and whiskey. Searching for anything below the deck is like looking for a box in a large factory with the lights off. It’s possible that the whiskey was stored in the bilge level, but the deck has collapsed and the risk level in searching for it is too high.”
Richardson has not released the coordinates for the ship’s location, wanting to keep the site protected. By law, the wreck and everything on it now belongs to the state. “Divers used to be trophy hunters,” he explained. “They’d go down and bring up some artifact – a piece of china or some such thing, and while I wouldn’t be opposed to bringing some things up for museums, I’m glad that we can now take videos of our finds. They are today’s trophies.”
Richardson has been described as a “passionate and knowledgeable” speaker. He has given presentations at many venues in the Great Lakes region, including Ann Arbor, Milwaukee, South Haven, Traverse City, Sault Ste. Marie and others. He has worked with David Trotter and with Clive Cussler’s National Underwater and Marine Agency (NUMA) Team, and has served on the board of directors of the Michigan Shipwreck Research Associates for nearly a decade.
Richardson is currently at work on a book about Michigan’s missing people, aircraft and ships.
“There are over 200 open ‘missing persons’ cases in Michigan right now,” he said. Solving their mysteries and those of the more than 50 as yet undiscovered shipwrecks he believes lie beneath Michigan’s waters is all part of what this intrepid explorer and author calls “a way I can help the community and provide a service.”
Richardson’s book, “The Search for the Westmoreland, Lake Michigan’s Treasure Ship” (Arbutus Press), is available on his website and at local bookstores.