The surrounding waters of Grand Traverse Bay and Lake Michigan are littered with historic shipwrecks, dozens of them. 

Many of these shipwrecks rest near land, with remnants occasionally drifting ashore, but most of them are resting in deep enough water that diving or snorkeling is required to glimpse them. The growing popularity of diving has made exploring these underwater treasures a sought-after pastime in Traverse City. 

The bulk of the ships can be found in two maritime preserves -- the Grand Traverse Underwater Preserve and the Manitou Passage State Underwater Preserve. These preserves protect the remains but also encourage exploration and education. Divers and kayakers alike can often be found perusing these preserves in search of historical wrecks.

The curious are free to look and snap photos -- but removing any artifacts is prohibited by Michigan law. 

Shipwreck Blog

Shipwreck Blog

Perhaps the most intriguing of these shipwrecks lies in the Manitou Passage just a few miles from the shores of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. What intrigues most people about the remains of the Westmoreland is its purported cargo, believed to be still intact, preserved by the cold waters of Lake Michigan.

The cargo? Gold and whiskey. The passenger steamer was en route from Chicago to Mackinac Island on its last voyage of the season when it sank in 1854. Believed stored on board were gold coins ($20 million by today’s value) and a healthy cache of whiskey -- apparently pay and refreshments for the soldiers stationed at Fort Mackinac.

The nearly intact remains of the ship were discovered sitting 180 feet below the surface more than a decade ago. To date, nothing has been salvaged from the ship, but researchers believe the gold and whiskey lie somewhere in the ship’s hold, not visible to divers who have managed to gingerly explore the site. 

Shipwreck hunter Ross Richardson found the Westmoreland sitting upright on the floor of Platte Bay in 2010. He hopes to retrieve some artifacts and preserve them at a local museum. He’s also working with northern Michigan’s Mammoth Distilling, which hopes to use some of the salvaged wood to age and flavor whiskey.

Shipwreck Blog

No one knows what the state of the ship’s surviving whiskey might be but testing the liquid to determine its composition is of interest. Salvaging any artifacts will take some time and will require the finesse of experts (as well as state licenses).

Underwater photographer Chris Roxburgh has explored the Westmoreland and considers the shipwreck one of the most important in the Great Lakes, as equally as notable as the more famous Edmund Fitzgerald, which sank in Lake Superior in 1975.

The Westmoreland, he says, is one of the few shipwrecks with its hogging arches, on either side of the hull, fully intact. But it’s more than that.

The story of Westmoreland's demise is a harrowing tale.

With winds whipping beyond 30 knots, the 200-foot-long ship foundered in an early December blizzard. The ship took on frigid water, lost power, and sank to the bottom of Lake Michigan. Some 17 people lost their lives; another 17 survived. Their stories were later shared in published accounts and word of gold on board surfaced.

“Gold?” shipwreck hunter Richardson ponders. “That’s the legend.”

All photo credits are to Chrish Roxburgh. Follow him on Facebook for more information and photos!