Northern Michigan: Over 150 years after she went down, shipwreck hunter Ross Richardson found Lake Michigan’s legendary treasure ship, the Westmoreland. Now What?

On Father’s Day 2010 Ross Richardson indulged his obsessive search for a shipwreck he refers to almost exclusively (and with a hint of passion in his voice) as She. As evening set in after a family outing, he put his 1984 20-foot Bayliner Trophy hardtop into Lake Michigan in Glen Arbor and ran it 16 miles through darkening waters until he’d rounded the glowing face of Empire bluffs. Offshore from the mouth of Benzie County’s Otter Creek and under a star-spattered sky, Richardson maneuvered his boat through the now black waters in a perfect mile-grid pattern.

All the while, he studied the screen of his Hummingbird side-scan sonar, alert for any marks on the screen that could signal traces of the propeller steamer the Westmoreland—a ship perhaps not seen since she sank in a snowstorm in 1854. A ship that legend has it went down with a winter’s pay for the entire garrison stationed at Fort Mackinac—gold pieces that would be worth millions today. A ship whose whereabouts is one of Lake Michigan’s great unsolved mysteries. That short list also includes the whereabouts of the 17th-century Le Griffon—the first European sailing ship on the Great Lakes, and the Northwest Airlines Flight 2501 that disappeared in 1950 with 58 people onboard.

All three wrecks have been doggedly pursued since they were lost, and sometimes hunters become so obsessive their names become intertwined with the wreck’s narrative. To wit, Le Griffon and Robert Libert, who believes he found LaSalle’s ship off the coast of Charlevoix in 2001 after searching 30 years, and then brashly involved the French government in his tangle with the state of Michigan over salvage rights. Then there’s adventure novelist Clive Cussler—the mind behind his novels’ hero, suave, craggily handsome Dirk Pitt—who uses the organization he founded and funds, National Underwater Marine Agency (NUMA), to mount annual searches for Flight 2501.

In contrast to Libert’s bravado and Cussler’s fame, Westmoreland pursuer Ross Richardson is a self-effacing stay-at-home dad who is a little overweight and on first impression seems more Teddy Bear-ish than he does swashbuckling.

Richardson’s years-long quest to find the Westmoreland has been largely funded (to the total tune of maybe $10,000, he says, if you count the family boat) by his wife’s job at the Priority Health office in Traverse City. Besides diving and wreck hunting, Richardson volunteers in the tiny Lake Ann library.

Richardson is not afraid to talk about God’s role in his life—especially His hand in the search for She. And he adores talking shipwrecks. Maybe too much, he admits: His family clears the room now when he starts up. Of the long cast of characters who have searched for the Westmoreland, Richardson seems one of the least likely to find her.

But there’s a lot to be said for persistence, a little trust in Providence, a new side-scan sonar and, well, some recklessness, because Richardson did find the Westmoreland, but not on that Father’s Day–night search that had been a gift of time from his wife, Jennifer. On a calm July afternoon a couple of weeks later, as he scanned the third of three, mile-square search grids he’d mapped for his summer’s search work, she appeared on his screen—a dark brown apparition of a ship. A big ship. A ship whose keel stretched some 200 feet long. For six years Richardson had researched every shred of historical evidence he could get his eyes on about the Westmoreland and how she went down. Staring at the screen that day, he had no doubt that he’d found her. “I knew right away,” he says. “I went, Oh crap.”

He describes the moment in his book, The Search for the Westmoreland, soon to be released by Traverse City’s Arbutus Press.

I stopped the boat, shut off the engine, and did some heavy duty praying and soul searching. I jumped into the water to cool off, with my internal dialogue kicking into high gear. Is this it? Did God create this path for me to follow to make this discovery? What is my action plan? Who should I call? Should I open that bag of trail mix and snack on its contents?

On a blue sky June day this summer Richardson is at the wheel of his Bayliner headed out to dive the Westmoreland for the first time this year. He’s wearing jeans and a black T-shirt that reads NUMA on it—a quiet billboard for the fact that he has volunteered annually on the Cussler-team searches for Flight 2501. Onboard with Richardson and me today are his publisher, Sue Bays, and Traverse photographer Todd Zawistowski. This will be Bay’s first time seeing Richardson in dive mode.

Before we loaded, Richardson paused on the dock to address us seriously: “Just one thing before we go. I need you to promise not to share the GPS coordinates. I’m going to release them soon, but for now, I’m keeping them secret.” A seagull squawked and skimmed the light-studded water, children laughed and splashed on a paddleboard in the shallows off of Le Bear condominiums, a fishing boat roared in to wait for us to clear the launch, and we three quietly and solemnly promised not to give up the coordinates of an ancient and legendary shipwreck.

Richardson’s plan has been to guard the coordinates until he’s thoroughly documented the wreck with video, and perhaps worked with the state of Michigan or Northwestern Michigan College to map it. But NMC hasn’t responded to his offer to team up, and despite a flurry of press after Richardson announced his discovery, Michigan’s State Historic Preservation Office (charged with overseeing the wreck) has yet to contact him. So he’s gone it alone—actually with a handful of his closest dive buddies—heading out on some 30 dives last summer with his off-the-shelf GoPro video camera and underwater casing. He is racing against the clock, and he knows it. The combination of historical sleuthing and side-scan sonars that brought him success is pretty simple to replicate—Richardson maintains that the ship lay undiscovered for so many years because she is tucked in the fjordlike fingers of a reef that aren’t on the NOAA map—a location that was nearly impossible to uncover with old-fashioned techniques but not with side-scan sonar. Once found, the 180-foot dive is easily accessed by experienced divers. While Richardson believes that most divers want only to surface with memory and photos or videos as he does, there are still those unscrupulous few—enough to strip a virtual sunken museum in a single summer.

Today he’s diving solo. He knows it’s dangerous. Only three years ago he had to surface a fellow diver who’d drowned on a wreck in the Mackinac Straits. Diving solo is a cardinal no-no. For all of the househusband, librarian, history buff in Richardson, there’s also plenty of water cowboy.

As we motor over the cobalt lake, the Sleeping Bear coast rolls by, flecked with brightly colored people-dots along the beach, bluffs and dunes. Richardson points out several shallow wrecks that he’s also found, and we peer overboard for a glimpse of the skeletons of ancient schooners. Starboard, South Manitou Island’s tawny, green coast spreads across the blue horizon. The island and most of the mainland along here is in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore—a national park voted the Most Beautiful Place in America by viewers of Good Morning America in August 2011.

But this waterscape has its ugly side. This is the southern end of the notoriously treacherous Manitou Passage, a stretch of Lake Michigan that has long bedeviled sailors with its unpredictable wave patterns and labyrinth of shoals. It is hardly a pretty place to be caught in a boat in a winter storm, as the Westmoreland was on December 7, 1854. She’d been fighting the storm since just hours after she pulled out of Milwaukee, overloaded with 34 passengers and crew, and a hold of cargo bound to provision the troops on Mackinac Island for the winter.

Frigid waves cresting at 10 to 12 feet lapped the deck, encasing her in ice and twisting the hull until it leaked. By the time the crew could make out the South Manitou Lighthouse—and the safe harbor outside its door—they were bailing in icy, ankle-deep water. They were bailing for their lives; if the boiler flooded and the fire went out the ship would lose power and she’d be at the mercy of the wind and waves.

Then, just 2.5 miles from South Manitou, that worst-case scenario happened; the fire went out, and the north wind blew her back, down the coast at about three miles per hour. There was no possible way out, save three lifeboats; there was no hope of help—if there were natives around, they were well hunkered in. The only white settlers to the Sleeping Bear Dunes area, the Fisher family, had battened the hatches as well.

If she had stayed afloat for 2.5 more miles the Westmoreland would have run aground. But as she began to sink, dead-out into the middle of Platte Bay from the mouth of Otter Creek, the captain ordered the three lifeboats lowered. Nineteen people in two small lifeboats launched into the roiling surf. They included the captain, two female passengers and assorted crewmembers. There was also William Saltonstall, who was on his annual run to Mackinac Island to provision the troops as per his contract with the government. As he’d done other winters, Saltonstall had brought his sled and two sled dogs along with him—his plan being to stay on Mackinac Island until the Straits froze over, then snowshoe and dogsled to Detroit where he’d take a train to Chicago.

The other 17 people loaded into the largest of the three lifeboats. As it was lowered amid the furry of wind and waves it snagged on its davit, flipped and dumped its passengers to icy deaths. The survivors, tossed from wave crests to troughs in their small boats, caught glimpses of the dying men clinging to the ship’s signature twin hogging arches that towered several stories from her deck. And even over the wind and crashing waves they heard the terrified bay of the sled dogs. Near shore, one of the smaller lifeboats flipped and two more men drowned. The total count that day: 17 lived, 17 died. The near-frozen survivors regrouped onshore, not far from the mouth of the Platte River. They eventually split up—one party walked to Manistee and boarded a ship to Wisconsin. Another pair walked to Mackinaw City and eventually made it to Mackinac Island. A third group, including the captain and the women, found shelter and hospitality in the Fisher family’s newly built cabin.

Newspapers from Buffalo to Chicago carried accounts of the wreck. Rumors swirled about the gold and all that whiskey. Within a decade, crewman and survivor Paul Pelkey was trolling for the wreck, presumably spurred on by dreams of finding the sunken treasure. Over the century, through the next one and into the new century, many, many others searched for the Westmoreland. They dragged chains and dove in hard helmets. And in the last decades they used sonar. Her cast of pursuers included Jack Browne and Max Nohl, divers who went on to found Desco, a Milwaukee-based producer of salvage dive gear, and Jim Sawtelle, who spent d ecades, when it was still legal, outfitting homes and restaurants—Mackinac Island’s Pilot House and Charlevoix’s Weathervane Terrace to name a few—with the décor pieces he built from salvaged shipwrecked lumber.

About a mile into Platte Bay Richardson spies a boat floating exactly over the coordinates of the Westmoreland. Instantly his ire is up: “This is crazy, there’s a boat up ahead. Does that look like a boat to you? This’ll be interesting. Uh oh.” The closer we draw, the more agitated he becomes. “These interlopers are [fill in the expletive blank] with us,” he fumes. I am ready to believe that Johnny Depp is about to strut out on that boat’s deck, earring, headscarf and all, when we realize that the ship is the Northwestern—the Northwestern Michigan College research vessel that is engaged with a Lake Michigan bottomlands mapping project this summer.

But the knowledge doesn’t calm Richardson down because logic would dictate that the boat should be mapping the reef that wreathes the bay, not hanging out over the Westmoreland’s coordinates in the middle of the bay. Richardson is especially hot under his Numa T-shirt because of his unanswered invitation to work with the college: “My big thing this summer was better documentation of the site and that’s why I was going to team up with back stabber buddies over here,” he says. “But now I know that tells me a lot about their character. If they woulda’ just contacted me we could have worked something out. Sneak around behind my back tells me these guys are not honorable. That’s kind of a big thing in wreck hunting.”

[Later that week I e-mailed Hans VanSumeren, director of the Water Studies Institute at Northwestern Michigan College asking him if the college was mapping the wreck. His reply: “Nothing planned right now.”]

Therein lies the conundrum for the modern-day shipwreck hunter: There is really nothing much tangible in it for the dude, or dudette as the case may be. The Federal Abandoned Shipwreck Law of 1987, combined with state of Michigan law, makes it very difficult to salvage a shipwreck legally. Without a degree in marine archeology and an affiliation with a sponsoring organization, there’s no payoff for a find—or even many folks around to clank the cymbals.

After identifying his find as the Westmoreland (those towering hogging arches being the main giveaway) Richardson held a press conference at the Lake Ann Library to announce his discovery. The local media picked up the story. Richardson is invited often to speak about the ship. He’s writing the book. But for the State of Michigan, which has some 1,500 shipwrecks to watch over and, relatively speaking, no budget with which to do that, the discovery of the Westmoreland in state waters is a mere blip—legendary treasure ship or not. “To be honest, I really don’t know a whole lot about it,” Michigan State Archeologist Dr. Dean Anderson told me in a phone interview.

The Northwestern finally motors away from the wreck site to, Richardson assumes, resume its bottomlands mapping, and he maneuvers atop it, cuts the engine, drags out a huge and gnarly grapple hook he calls the Big Bitch, and drops it overboard to sink down, down, and anchor us into some unknown part of the Westmoreland. Then he begins the arduous and overheated process of suiting up into his orange dry suit, all the while explaining to the three boating novices he’s leaving onboard how to call Mayday in case the grapple hook comes loose, the Bayliner starts to float away, and he is left without an ascent line …

Twenty minutes later by Sue’s calculations, he surfaces. Meaning he had very little time with the wreck, given his decompression stops. The truth is, he says, he was spooked to be down there alone—as frightened as he was the first time he dove the wreck, alone, in 2010, when he saw swirls in the lake bottom that he believes may be the resting places of human bones.

“It’s just scary. Your mind starts thinking, what if something goes wrong?” Then he interrupts himself to explain that the Big Bitch has hooked on to one of the davits—one of the same that helped flip 15 people to their deaths. “I swam along the arch,” he continues, “got to the bow and scared the shit out of myself and turned around and hauled my ass back.” As he slowly peels out of his orange suit, trying to stabilize himself in waves that have unexpectedly become choppy, he continues. “You can see the curve of the bow where it goes into the bottom and the wreckage field, which is where I’m sure the bell is. As I was combing the side I start getting deeper and deeper without noticing it, then I was like, Oh shit. I was heading down to the bottom. I gassed up and about that time I got to get the hell out of here. That reminds me why I don’t solo dive.” He pauses to extract a leg from his suit, then adds, “But it is a lot of fun … people trying to find our treasure. Where else are you going to get adventure like that? It’s the last frontier.”

Once the laborious business of removing mask, fins, tanks, suit et al is over, Richardson tries to loosen the Big Bitch and bring her up. In minutes it’s apparent that the Big Bitch is stuck good into She. Zawistowski sets his camera down to help. For a solid half-hour Richardson moves the boat slowly back and forth while our Traverse photographer heaves on the rope. To no avail.

No worries. Richardson plans to return next week with his dive buddies. He’ll disengage the grapple then. That will be just one of many more dives he has ahead of him on the Westmoreland. You have to believe that Richardson’s commitment to this ship is a lifetime deal.

As for that gold: I asked Richardson twice on our trip that day if he has seen it down there. Both times he raised his hands and shrugged saying, “I don’t know where it is.” But he also told me twice that he’d scoured every inch of the wreck.

If that leaves you to think something … know that at the end of his book Richardson suggests that Jack Browne and Max Nohl may actually have found the ship’s disengaged pilothouse, snagged the treasure and used it to finance their 1930’s startup of the Desco Corporation—still a global producer of salvage-diving gear. If that is true, there’s poetry in the fact that one of the most sought after sunken treasures on the Great Lakes has funded salvage operations over the Seven Seas and beyond.

This article was first featured in August 2012 Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Click here to order your copy!