Great Lakes shipwreck hunter David Trotter has found the wreck of the Keystone State, a wooden sidewheel steamer that sank into the cold, clear waters of Lake Huron with all 33 hands on board in November of 1861. It was discovered about 50 miles north of Port Austin, the last place it was sighted already in distress, and unlike some of the other 100 shipwrecks Trotter’s team has found which sank straight down and remained virtually intact on the lake floor, much of the Keystone State was found scattered along the bottom. However its most dramatic features — two massive paddle wheels 40 feet in diameter, its engine and two boilers — were standing where they fell in 175 feet of water.
The Keystone State was both a jewel and a workhorse in its day. It was built in Buffalo in 1849, a 288-foot steamship designed for the transportation of rich travelers, poor immigrants and considerable cargo.
It was the second-largest steamship on the Great Lakes at the time and was among a class known as palace steamers, said maritime historian, author and artist Robert McGreevy.
“The interiors were made to look like the finest hotels. They were quite beautiful inside,” he said. “They had leaded glass windows and carved arches and mahogany trim.”
Along with posh accommodations for the wealthy, its steerage had plenty of space for immigrant travelers heading from Buffalo to destinations like Chicago or Milwaukee. Records show the boat also had room for 6,000 barrels of freight.
It was almost passé from the time when it was born, thanks to the advent of the railroads which would soon make canal and lake transportation obsolete, and in 1857 it was taken out of operation because it cost more to run than it could make. With the arrival of the Civil War, the old wooden steamships were pulled out of mothballs because there was profiteering to be done. The Keystone State was refurbished and sent to Detroit to pick up its cargo.
The planned route was hugging the western coast of Lake Huron up to Cheboygan, then crossing the Straits of Mackinac into Lake Michigan and going south to its final destination in Milwaukee. The ship was last seen by witnesses off the coast of Port Austin around November 9th, 1861, then nobody heard or saw anything of it for the next couple of days. Finally some wreckage washed up in Lexington, south of Port Austin closer to where the ship began its journey than where it ended.
This final voyage was a mysterious one. It left in a hurry without any lifeboats. Its cargo manifest claimed it was hauling iron hardware, farm equipment and grain, but who buys that stuff in November in Wisconsin? It’s not exactly prime planting or threshing season. Also, given the inclement weather on the Great Lakes in November, hauling farm gear doesn’t seem like sufficient motivation to brave the journey so late in the year. Rumors quickly sprung up that she was on a secret mission, surreptitiously carrying Civil War arms and munitions or gold bullion or gold coins.
The diving team saw no evidence of mysterious cargo or the gleam of golden treasure in more than 30 dives to the site from July through September of this year. The cargo hold was completely empty, perhaps because the crew dumped its freight in a desperate attempt to save the disabled ship. Thus the mystery of the Keystone State‘s last trip remains unsolved.
Here’s a video describing the significance of the wreck and the discovery. The boat work start around 1:55. You can see the wreck beginning at the three minute mark. Those paddle wheels look magnificent in the crisp blue waters of Lake Huron.