By May of 1891 in Manistee, Michigan, the sigh of relief from the end of winter had given way to an uncertain spring. It had been drier than normal which resulted in a number of forest fires. The air was filled with smoke, and the Lumber Barons of Northern Michigan had to have been concerned.
Most of this area’s industry was tied to trees. D.H. Day, one of the area’s most successful Lumber Barrons, was shipping out tons of lumber to ever-growing midwest cities and towns. Locally, northern Michigan was growing, too. Roads, however, were hard to come by, and railroads mostly served the lumber companies. This meant loading a cargo of shingles and salt onto the W.C. Kimball, a small 40-ton schooner, was the best way to make the short trip to Northport, Michigan.
They intended to sail up the Manitou Passage, around the western arm of the Leelanau Penisula and dock at Northport. It wasn’t a very long trip, and a lot of it would be fairly close to land. Time is money, as they say, and the ship, with a crew of three and one passenger, set out on May 7, into stormy waters. They were never seen again.
The Great Lakes are home to an estimated 6,000 shipwrecks today. In the 1800s, the loss of one small schooner barely made the newspapers of the time. It was noted, mostly, because the passenger onboard happened to be a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, along with the fact that the papers kept an eye on the coming and going of shipping traffic. The Kimball, with its small crew and small cargo, was largely forgotten over time.
Until 2018 when Ross Richardson, a renowned Great Lakes Shipwreck explorer happened to come across the ship on a trip through the Manitou Passage. A small image on the sonar caught his eye, and he eventually filmed and identified the ship, which rests on the lake bottom, 300 feet down. The incredible thing was that the ship looked to be completely intact.
Ross is protective of these wrecks and while the ship was identified, he didn’t reveal the location. But I couldn’t resist the opportunity to visit what is probably the most intact schooner in the Great Lakes. The problem was, I didn’t know where it was, and it was deep.
The first step was relocating the ship myself. I was able to piece together some clues in the descriptions Ross gave and that helped narrow down the search area. In early March of 2022, I was out with my mentor Mark. We were freezing and after pass after pass of not seeing anything you can get down in the dumps.
Then all of a sudden, there it was and we were totally elated! Once we sent the ROV down and actually saw the masts standing tall and the lifeboat there was just a feeling of accomplishment. It was great that I did it with my best friend and mentor there. I also knew that I had to get down to see her with my own eyes.
Diving safely to those depths was going to take a team and training. Deep dives are nothing to take lightly. They require planning and focus. In my case, I needed some additional certifications, too. I ended up in Florida working with Marty Watson who trained me to dive safely in deep water. He wanted to make sure I knew what the hell I was doing and made sure I understood what happens to your body as you dive into these depths.
I also received help from Matt at the Great Lakes Diving Center in Sheboygan, WI. I had known Matt for a while and we had worked together on other projects. He knew how important this was to me, and believed I could bring back some incredible footage. I am grateful he decided to become a sponsor and his backing really helped. This dive turned out to be an expensive endeavor with all the additional training that had to happen.
Rounding out the team was Ray Wilson, who is an experienced technical diver and, as it turns out, already qualified to go to this depth. I invited him to be my diving partner on this expedition and he agreed. We spent early spring making practice dives, going deeper each time, to get acclimated to what we would experience when we finally got on the Kimball. Instead of just talking about doing this stuff, it all came together and we actually did it.
We finally dove the W.C. Kimball shipwreck on May 17, 2022. It was a nice day, warm, with calm waves. A good day to go deep. On the boat, we had my girlfriend Trinh Who would monitor the dive and keep watch over everything while we were gone. Ray and I both felt a bit of anticipation for what we hoped to see, but we had to stay focused.
With tech diving, when I leave the surface and I go down below, it’s like a switch flips. It’s all business, you’re making sure your equipment’s right and all the settings are right. Then you throw a camera in there and you’re trying to get the camera settings right, also. It’s not chaotic, but it’s a dance and you have to do it very well.
Seeing the Kimball shipwreck in person was like, ‘Oh yeah, there it is.’ You’re not celebrating in the moment because so much is happening and it’s a serious dive. It was slightly darker down there than the pictures show, but we had plenty of ambient light. It is just as impressive in person as what the pictures show, maybe even more. You see the textures, you see the anchors and up close detail of all these things from the 1800s.
It is very, very impressive. But again, so much is going on, you can’t really relish the moment like you would want. Once you get back to the surface or almost to the surface and you know you’re safe. That’s when the celebration happens.
The W.C. Kimball shipwreck is really impressive. It is sitting there on the bottom with its masts upright and looks like it should be sailing away despite sinking in 1891. No one knows exactly why it sank.
The leading theory is that it became overwhelmed by the weight of ice accumulation that formed during a storm. Ice buildup was really dangerous back then. The Kimball may have become covered in too much ice. If the waves are high, and the ship is riding too low in the water, it can get swamped. Ice can also make ships unstable so that they can’t right themselves fast enough in big waves. Whatever the reason, once it went under, it gently sank to the bottom of the lake. As the ice melted, it kept the W.C. Kimball in an incredible state of preservation.
What’s sobering is seeing the lifeboat just off the stern of the ship, near where it would have been stowed. It’s real history and real lives were lost. People walked these decks. The ship is standing so proud, and still, it’s so sad.
Ray and I didn’t get to spend too much time on the bottom due to the depth, but we managed to get some amazing photos. They give you a really good sense of what it is like to visit her.
The W.C. Kimball is a great example of why I dive these shipwrecks. I do enjoy the challenge, and this one was one of the most challenging, but equally, I love sharing the history and giving people a look at what’s down there.