With at least 6,000 shipwrecks in the Great Lakes, divers have a lot of choices in the location and types of ships we explore. Each ship is unique, with its own story and place in history. But there are some that stand out and catch our attention more than others. These may be ships that are special in design, depth, or history. They may represent a challenge to find or get to. For me, the Westmoreland is one of those special ships.
She was an early version of steamers called a “propeller.” In the 1850s, most ships on the Great Lakes were sailing vessels called schooners. Steamships were becoming more present, but most of them were driven by paddle wheels located on the sides of the ship. A few were pioneering new technology, the propeller, which worked like a large screw, turning in the water and pushing the ship forward.
The Westmoreland was a long ship for this time period, measuring about 278 feet from bow to stern. It was also built out of wood. These two characteristics made it prone to bending in the middle and so the builders used “hogging arches” to prevent this. These are giant arches, made of wood, that connect to the hull on each side and give ships of this era a very distinctive look.
Like many cargo ships of her day, the Westmoreland also carried passengers. The holds on the bottom would be filled with barrels full of commodities like grain, flour, whisky, and nails. Finished products like iron stoves might also be sent from port to port. Above all of this, on the main deck, was a long structure filled with salons for socializing, rooms for the trip, and dining rooms. On top of this, at the very front, would be the wheelhouse, where the Captain and his officers would command the ship.
The Westmoreland had only been in service since 1853 when it was caught in a violent winter storm off of the Manitou Islands in December 1854. It began to take on water as the captain tried to get her to safety and close to shore. With the boiler and engine situated in the back of the ship, the more water that came in, the heavier the back of the vessel became and the deeper the water got.
When the water finally reached the fires in the boilers and extinguished them, her fate was sealed. She sank in deep water somewhere between S. Manitou Island and the Michigan Coast. Half of the people on board perished, leaving 17 survivors.
Ross Richarson, a renowned shipwreck hunter had this ship on his list and he eventually found her in 2010. Because of the nature of this wreck, her coordinates are known to only a small group of people. I’ve had the honor of diving on her four times, the last time being the first week of July 2023.
On my last visit, with my dive partner Ray Wilson, we had great weather conditions. That is really important for deeper technical dives because you’ll generally have some ambient light at depth and calm conditions for doing long decompression stops on the line.
We motored out from Frankfort, about 12 miles and methodically got everything set up for diving once we arrived on site and spotted the ship on sonar. The down line we descend and ascend on to the bottom was lowered over the side of the boat while we hovered in position above the wreck, aided by GPS.
Using the down line is definitely way less impact on the decaying wrecks than if you drag into it with an anchor or grapple to hold the boat’s position. When you anchor or grapple, you really have no control over what you hook into. You could rip off the ship’s wheel, the masts or take down the hogging arches in the case of the Westmoreland, which is 170 years old. So it’s really not a practice that’s acceptable these days. It’s really important for me to treat these sites with respect and care and not cause damage to them, so I’m proud of developing my way to safely dive without touching the wrecks at all.
Once the boat was set up, we turned our attention to our rebreathers and started getting suited up. This takes about 20 minutes to a half hour. You want to do things at a leisurely pace so you’re focused and not stressed, and making sure you’re not forgetting anything in the process.
Doing it in the same order, as you’ve done it time and time before is important. That way there’s nothing different about this dive in comparison with any other. With tech diving, you cannot be rushed. That’s just the nature of it. At that point, all we had to do was jump in, strap on our bail-out tanks that were hanging on a line in the water, and descend directly down to the wreck.
The Westmoreland lies in 180 feet of water. I’ve talked about what it’s like to descend through water in this article. On this day, we could see the dark shape of the ship beginning to emerge out of the gloom at around 120 feet.
I’ve been fascinated with this ship for a few reasons. Part of it is because it’s so old, it was built in 1853 and sank in 1854, but also because it’s in such an incredible state of preservation. The sheer size of the vessel just dwarfs you when swimming in and along it and you can almost begin to imagine what it would have been like when it was afloat and in use.
And of course, there is the tale of rumored treasure that makes this a fun dive, too. A few years after she sank, the rumor started that she was carrying barrels of whisky, which would have been salvageable to be sold, and also a large amount of gold coin to pay the troops at Mackinac Island. Whether or not there’s actually any merit to the tale, it does add a layer of mystery to the dive.
One of the highlights of the dive is seeing the auxiliary ship’s wheel, which is traditionally used as an emergency means of steering the ship if the main wheel or steering mechanism is damaged. It’s really quite a surprise to see it still in place despite all the destruction on the rest of the ship. The fact that it still remains in place can only be attributed to sheer luck.
Below that, the large five-bladed propeller sits partially buried in the lake bottom with one broken lobe on the starboard side. The rudder itself sits at an unnatural angle and looks to have been forced over, perhaps when the ship hit the bottom or when the limiting chains broke while the prop was spinning. The Westmoreland was equipped with one of the first propellers of this design on the Great Lakes. It’s a shape that is common today but was cutting-edge technology on the Lakes 170 years ago.
Swimming along the deck between the massive hogging arches, you can’t help but notice that nothing of the cabins on the topside remain. When the ship sank, the air pressure inside blew the cabins and pilot house right off the decks. So, even though everything is collapsed, you swim over a relatively flat deck with no structures.
A careful eye scanning the chaos of debris will show a surprising number of artifacts though, especially on the lake bottom next to the wreck. It’s a very old vessel and while everything on top is so collapsed, it’s still in extremely good shape. But it is breaking down as wooden wrecks do.
Currently, there’s just a small portion under the deck that you can swim through. It takes you next to the steam engine and boiler before debris blocks all but an exit out a side cargo door, or a narrow swim through the pile of decking. At the front of the ship, where the windlass is, sits the remnants of a barrel of flour and a metal-lined cargo box.
Midship you pass a large amount of grain on deck and a manual bilge pump that still clings to the near vertical deck section on the starboard side. This was likely one of the very pumps that the crew used, desperately trying to keep the rising water from reaching the fires in the boilers.
The total dive time was one hour even as we had a second dive planned for the day, but we were able to spend nearly 28 minutes on the bottom exploring and seeing details that I had missed on previous dives.
Diving on the Westmoreland is an incredible experience, but with its depth, it’s a technical dive. This means even fewer people can visit it. I really do believe it’s important to visit these wrecks responsibly and to document and share them before they are gone. It’s even more important when the shipwreck preserves a technological advance, like the Westmoreland’s propeller.
Each time I visit, I can photograph the same area of the ship and it will never be exactly the same as what I saw last time. For as long as there is something to see, the Westmoreland will stand as an example of the danger and innovation that went into sailing the inland seas in the 1850s. I plan on coming back to see her again.