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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Finding a Century-Old Shipwreck

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Located on Lake Michigan like we are, Milwaukeeans have an excellent position from which to watch history unfold. We are sitting on the shore of the largest surface freshwater system on the planet, and that comes with a lot of activity. In addition to containing nearly 84% of North America’s surface fresh water, the Great Lakes hold thousands of submerged vessels. On rare occasions, someone finds a tangible link to the region’s rich maritime history in the form of a sunken ship. A team of Wisconsin marine historians and divers recently discovered the largest wooden ship still missing in Lake Michigan—the steamship L.R. Doty, which disappeared in a catastrophic Lake Michigan storm 112 years ago.

Brendon Baillod, president of the Wisconsin Underwater Archeology Association and director-at-large of the Association of Great Lakes Maritime History, hosted a fascinating lecture about the Doty and her discovery on Sunday, July 11, at Discovery World. According to Baillod, the L.R. Doty was one of six sister ships built in Bay City, Mich., by F.W. Wheeler, a famous shipbuilder on the Great Lakes. All were 291 feet long, 41 feet wide and about 20 feet deep. Roughly 50 acres of white oak trees were cut down to build the Doty in 1893, and her hull was reinforced by an iron lattice and two huge steel arches. Two enormous boilers fed a triple expansion 3-cylinder steam engine that generated 1,000 horsepower for the ship’s massive propeller. It was built for the Cuyahoga Transit Co. of Ohio, and was named for the company’s general manager, Lucius Ramsey Doty.

By the 1890s schooners were no longer economical to operate compared to steam-powered vessels. Shipping companies realized they could double their cargo capacity for little extra cost by cutting the masts off of schooners and towing them behind a steam ship. From the beginning of its career, the L.R. Doty always towed a 242-foot-long schooner called the Olive Jeanette.

The Doty, with the Jeanette in tow, left South Chicago bound for Midland, Ontario, at 2 p.m. on Oct. 24, 1898, loaded with bushels of corn. Fall 1898 was an active hurricane season, and remnants of a storm system that nearly destroyed Brunswick, Ga., created a phenomenon on Lake Michigan. An extremely intense localized storm struck the pair of ships when they were just off Milwaukee at about 1 p.m. on Oct. 25. By 4 p.m., sleet and snow began to obscure visibility, and the waves were well over 20 feet. Several miles north of Milwaukee, at about 5 p.m., the towline between the two vessels broke. The only reason we know what happened to the Doty is because the schooner it was towing miraculously survived. The cook of the Olive Jeanette, Mrs. Frances Browne, reported that the Doty steamed ahead and disappeared into the mist. Forty hours later, her wreckage was found 25 miles off of Kenosha.

Leaving a schooner stranded alone in that kind of storm was a death sentence for its crew, so Baillod contends with relative certainty that the captain of the L.R. Doty, Christopher Smith, chose to turn around. “A vessel that’s 20 feet high and loaded, she may have been showing 5 to 10 feet above the water,” Baillod explained in his lecture. “When she turned, she was exposed to what we call the trough of the seas, where she has one wave on her right and one wave on her left, and she’s in the trough. It’s very difficult to turn out of that… even with a very powerful engine. In a case like this, it’s easy for the rudder, or the rudder chains, to break.”

The Doty was a long, straight-decked vessel with wooden hatch covers that could not have withstood thousands and thousands of gallons of water standing over the decks. It’s likely that water breached those hatches, and caused her to flounder catastrophically. All hands were lost, a total of 17 men.

On June 16, 2010, a group of explorers led by Baillod and charter captain Jitka Hanakova located the L.R. Doty, which had been snagged by a commercial fish tug in 1991, nearly 20 miles off Oak Creek. Video reveals the ship is upright and in an amazing state of preservation due to the cold, fresh water and extreme depth.

For more information about the discovery, the dive team and photos of the ship and the wreck site, visit Baillod’s site at www.ship-wreck.com/shipwreck/doty/.