Researchers Locate The 1886 Shipwreck Of The Steamship Milwaukee On The Bottom Of Lake Michigan Using Newspaper Articles

Published April 2, 2024
Updated April 3, 2024

The Michigan Shipwreck Research Association found the wreckage of the steamship Milwaukee in June 2023, 137 years after it sank following a collision with the C. Hickox.

Milwaukee Steamship Shipwreck

Michigan Shipwreck Research AssociationA sonar image of the steamship Milwaukee.

Using historical newspaper clippings, researchers from the Michigan Shipwreck Research Association (MSRA) recently discovered the wreckage of a steamship that sank 360 feet to the bottom of Lake Michigan in 1886.

The association announced the discovery of the steamship Milwaukee wreckage at the 24th annual MSRA Shipwreck Show at the Knickerbocker Theater in Holland, Michigan, on March 23, 2024, although the discovery itself was made in June 2023.

Discovering The Milwaukee’s Wreckage

In June 2023, Valerie and Jack van Heest, two of the founding members of MSRA, led a team to locate the sunken ship. They first used side-scan sonar technology to pinpoint its location, and then they constructed a remote-operated vehicle (ROV) equipped with a camera to capture footage of the wreckage and confirm it was indeed the Milwaukee.

But it wasn’t just this modern technology that contributed to the discovery.

“News accounts of the accident, as well as the study of water currents, led us to the Milwaukee after only two days searching,” said MSRA member Neel Zoss, according to a statement on Facebook.

After finding the shipwreck, the team captured stunning, clear footage of the Milwaukee.

“Visibility was excellent,” said Jack van Heest. “We saw the forward mast still standing as the ROV headed down to the bottom.”

The footage also revealed some surprising details about the Milwaukee that had not been previously noted in any other records.

Wreckage Of The Milwaukee

Michigan Shipwreck Research AssociationThe MSRA presentation slide for the shipwreck of the Milwaukee.

“The pilothouse on the wreck looks nothing like the octagonal pilothouse in the historic photo,” Valerie van Heest said.

MSRA team member Craig Rich added, “In studying the video, we realized that Lyman Gates Mason, who owned the Milwaukee, had made both the pilothouse and the aft cabin smaller in order to maximize the amount of lumber the ship could carry on each run.”

As for what caused the Milwaukee to sink to the bottom of Lake Michigan, it is something of a cautionary tale.

The Collision That Caused The Milwaukee To Sink

On July 8, 1886, the Milwaukee unloaded a shipment of lumber in Chicago and set off to Muskegon, Michigan, to pick up more. At the same time, a “nearly identical ship,” the C. Hickox, was heading from Muskegon to Chicago to deposit its own load of lumber.

The lookout of the Milwaukee, Dennis Harrington, saw the lights of the Hickox in the distance and alerted Captain Armstrong. Captain O’Day of the Hickox also spotted the lights of the Milwaukee.

In that situation, each ship was to follow a specific set of rules: slow down, turn to avoid a collision, and blast the steam whistle to signal the course change. However, since visibility was fine, neither captain followed these rules, as they believed they had plenty of time to move.

Steamship Milwaukee

Michigan Shipwreck Research AssociationA historical photo of the steamship Milwaukee.

Unfortunately, thick fog suddenly rolled in and made it impossible for the captains to see what the other vessel was doing. Captain Armstrong froze. Captain O’Day tried to blow his whistle, but the chain broke when he pulled it.

By the time the captains could see each other again, the Hickox was already bearing down on the Milwaukee. It was too late. The Milwaukee nearly capsized as the Hickox slammed into its side, and Harrington was flung from his lookout position.

Captain Armstrong rallied his crew and tried to save the Milwaukee but to no avail. Besides Harrington, the only casualty of the incident, everyone managed to escape the sinking ship aboard lifeboats, some making it onto the Hickox and others boarding another steamer that had come to their rescue, the City of New York.

Two hours later, in the early morning of July 9, 1886, the Milwaukee was fully submerged. Both Captain Armstrong and Captain O’Day later had their licenses suspended for failing to follow the proper procedures.

And now, 138 years later, the ill-fated steamship’s story has come to a close at last.

After reading about the discovery of the wreckage of the steamship Milwaukee, go inside one of history’s most famous shipwrecks, the RMS Titanic. Then, learn about the Andrea Gail, the shipwreck that inspired The Perfect Storm.

Austin Harvey
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Austin Harvey has also had work published with Discover Magazine, Giddy, and Lucid covering topics on mental health, sexual health, history, and sociology. He holds a Bachelor's degree from Point Park University.
Jaclyn Anglis
Jaclyn is the senior managing editor at All That's Interesting. She holds a Master's degree in journalism from the City University of New York and a Bachelor's degree in English writing and history (double major) from DePauw University. She is interested in American history, true crime, modern history, pop culture, and science.