Traverse City Attractions: Lake Michigan Shipwreck Identified

Traverse City Attractions: The unknown shipwreck discovered in Lake Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay in July by the students from Northwestern Michigan College’s Water Studies Institute and Freshwater Studies degree program has been identified as the B West, a locally-operated barge that sank in 1957.

A team of operational divers from Traverse City’s Northwestern Michigan College’s Nautical Archaeology program inspected the site shortly after its discovery in late July and positively identified the vessel from the name plate on the bow.

According to the Traverse City Record-Eagle, the B West was a 122-ton self-propelled lumber barge that sank off Northport on Dec. 16, 1957, when the bilge pump failed to activate. The barge was carrying a cargo of lumber from North Manitou Island to Leland when it began taking on water during a violent storm and drifted off course. The two crew members were evacuated by the Coast Guard, who took the vessel in tow, heading toward Northport. Shortly thereafter the B West sank under twenty-foot waves.

The owner, Perry Hammond according to the newspaper, planed to salvage the barge in the spring of 1958. However, the location of the wreck apparently remained unknown until Northwestern Michigan College students discovered it this July while performing hydrographic surveys of the lake bottom.

The discovery of the B West coincided with the end of the Nautical Archaeology Society’s 2011 International Field School held at NMC’s Great Lakes Campus in Traverse City, providing the team of 20 nautical archaeologists from around the world an opportunity to apply their newly-honed archaeology skills.

"The timing here could not have been better. The NAS field school brought together trained archaeologists from all across the United States and four different countries. We had the right people at the right place at the right time and were able to complete the research with unusual speed and expertise,” said NAS program director Dr. Mark Holley.

"Once again, this discovery and identification process demonstrates the unique set of institutional and human resources only available at NMC,” said Hans Van Sumeren, director of NMC’s Water Studies Institute in Traverse City. NMC offers the only associate’s degree in freshwater studies in the United States.

Divers from the field school team are likely the first to visit the B West since it sank. Due to the depth and cold bottom conditions only divers with advanced diving qualifications inspected the site.

“I have been around the world and done some cool stuff in my life but being the first to dive this wreck is up there with the top,” said field school graduate and technical diver David Selmo of New Orleans.

Built in Buffalo, NY in 1905, the B West lies in 100 feet of water at the mouth of Grand Traverse Bay between the Leelanau Peninsula and Charlevoix. It measures 100 feet in length by 24 feet in breadth and sits upright on the lake bed with no apparent damage, as if it were still underway to Northport, Holley said. He called it “the prettiest wreck that I have ever seen.”

"This is a magnificently preserved example of the types of cargo barges that were the backbone of commerce in this part of the Great Lakes in the first half of the last century,” Holley said.

The metal hull and deck is intact and mechanical equipment is present on the stern deck. Two large outboard engines complete with props extend off the stern. The name B West is clearly visible painted in white block letters on the bow.

The wreck will be more fully documented in the spring of 2012.

Read More about the Great Lakes Water Institute at Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City.