The Whiskey Salvaged From This 170-Year-Old Shipwreck In Lake Michigan Could Be Worth Millions

Published February 21, 2023
Updated February 27, 2024

In 2020, a team of shipwreck divers explored the Westmoreland, a 19th-century ship that sunk in Lake Michigan in 1854 — and found whiskey and gold coins worth millions of dollars.

Westmoreland Shipwreck

Cal Kothrade/Pen NewsArtist rendition of the Westmoreland shipwreck in Platte Bay, Michigan.

In the winter of 1854, a passenger ship carrying 280 barrels of whiskey and a stash of gold sank in Lake Michigan. For decades, the ship — as well as its treasure — lay hidden on the bottom of the lake, nearly 200 feet deep. Now, a team of divers has located the wreck and plans to recover the ship’s cargo, which may be worth over $17 million dollars.

On that cold December day in 1854, the Westmoreland passenger ship carried 34 passengers through the Manitou Passage, an infamous area of Lake Michigan known for its rough waves and strong currents, and got caught in a storm.

According to MyNorth.com, ice-cold waves measuring 10 to 20 feet slammed against the ship as it traversed through the passage, and soon the passengers of the Westmoreland were ankle-deep in frigid water. The Westmoreland lost its battle with the storm and sunk to the bottom of Platte Bay, taking an unlucky 17 passengers with her.

In the days following the wreck, newspapers published stories that spoke of the Westmoreland’s trove of gold coins and barrels of whiskey. The Westmoreland had reportedly been en route to a nearby Army fort, and it carried a stash of gold coins that would pay the soldiers’ wages.

These stories became urban legends that inspired many hopeful treasure hunters to look for the shipwreck over the years, but until 2010, no one had seen it for themselves.

More than a century after the ship sank, a local historian and recreational diver named Ross Richardson became obsessed with finding it. In July 2010, after several years of research using maps and historical accounts to estimate the ship’s final resting place, Richardson loaded into his boat equipped with sonar technology and traversed miles across Lake Michigan in search of the wreck.

Westmoreland Diver Ross Richardson

Lenawee District LibraryRoss Richardson, founder of the Westmoreland and author of The Search for the Westmoreland.

He planned to search three different square-mile grids of the bay that had seemed promising based on his research. And as he scanned the third grid, a ship appeared on his screen — a massive ship measuring about 200 feet long.

Richardson knew immediately that he had found the wreck of the Westmoreland.

“I knew right away,” he said, recounting the discovery to MyNorth. “I went, Oh crap.”

In his book, The Search for the Westmoreland, Richardson described the frenzy of thoughts going through his mind when he finally found the shipwreck he had spent so long obsessing over.

“I stopped the boat, shut off the engine, and did some heavy-duty praying and soul searching,” he wrote. “I jumped into the water to cool off, with my internal dialogue kicking into high gear. Is this it?”

But initially, there was little Richardson could legally do in regard to exploring the shipwreck or salvaging its cargo.

Michigan law prevents amateur divers from salvaging shipwrecks without authorization. And according to the U.S. National Park Service, the Federal Abandoned Shipwreck Law of 1987 “affirms the authority of state governments to claim and manage abandoned shipwrecks on state submerged lands.”

Richardson also tried reporting his finding to educational institutions but received disheartening replies. Disappointed with the lack of interest in the wreck, Richardson eventually hosted his own press conferences and alerted the media to his discovery.

This increased coverage attracted the attention of several universities interested in mapping the Westmoreland, and nearly 10 years after Richardson found the wreck, he was finally able to explore it alongside a team of researchers.

Westmoreland Dive

Chris Roxburgh/Pen NewsRoss Richardson’s crew explores the wreck of the Westmoreland.

On June 24, 2020, Richardson and his team dived down to explore the Westmoreland and look for her famed treasure. The crew identified several barrels of whiskey and gold coins, but were unable to extract them due to Michigan state law. But that didn’t discourage Richardson.

“We are in the beginning stages of discussing a salvage operation to recover the whiskey casks and possibly other artifacts,” he told Daily Mail earlier this month.

No official date has yet been set for the recovery, but Richardson is excited to begin operations, as he believes the wreck contains historically significant artifacts.

“The Westmoreland is an underwater museum, filled with perfectly-preserved relics from the 1850s, and preserving them for public display would be a worthy cause,” Richardson said.

In regard to the gold coins, Richardson told Daily Mail that they “would be worth about a million dollars if we melted them down and sold them.”

“The true value is the numismatic value of these coins, which could realistically be more than $20 million today,” he added.

The whiskey, meanwhile, is exceptionally rare, and regional distilleries have already expressed interest in purchasing it to use for testing and sale.

While it’s not yet clear how much whiskey has survived, any that remains intact would have aged 170 years. On top of that, according to The Mirror the genetic makeup of corn in 1854 was different from today’s, meaning the whiskey would also have a different taste.

Despite the legal entanglements of the operation and the rough conditions of the ship’s resting place, Richardson is hopeful that his crew will be able to extract the whiskey and the artifacts from the wreck after receiving proper permits.

When asked if he would ever see a conclusion to the Westmoreland expedition, Richardson told Daily Mail, “Eventually, yes. But, we are a long way, maybe decades, from making that happen.”

“Only time will tell if the Westmoreland will share her secrets with us,” Richardson said.


After reading about the wreck of the Westmoreland, learn about nine famous shipwrecks and the stories behind them. Or, discover the long history of treasure hunting on the mysterious Oak Island.

Amber Breese
Amber Breese is a former Editorial Fellow for All That's Interesting. She graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in political science, history, and Russian. Previously, she worked as a content creator for America House Kyiv, a Ukrainian organization focused on inspiring and engaging youth through cultural exchanges.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.