1886 Steamship 'Milwaukee' Found Remarkably Intact in Lake Michigan

1886 Steamship 'Milwaukee' Found Remarkably Intact in Lake Michigan

Michigan Shipwreck Research Association announces the discovery of the steamship Milwaukee, lost in 1886, now found intact in deep waters.

Steamship Milwaukee

The Michigan Shipwreck Research Association (MSRA) has uncovered the remarkably preserved steamship Milwaukee, which vanished in 1886 after a collision and has been resting in 360ft (100m) of water for over a century.

MSRA located the Milwaukee in June 2023 using side-scan sonar and documented it extensively with an ROV. Still, the discovery was only revealed to an enthralled audience in a live announcement during their annual film festival.

Valerie van Heest, along with her husband Jack van Heest, led the coordinated search efforts, culminating in this, the 19th shipwreck discovery for the MSRA team, off the shores of western Michigan. The MSRA aims to share these historical discoveries with the public through various educational mediums.

The ship's saga

The Milwaukee's career spanned 18 years, during which it served as a passenger and cargo vessel on the Great Lakes. Originally, the 135ft vessel had three decks, two designed for freight and one for passengers. But after the Wall Street panic of 1873, and changes in transportation infrastructure, the ship was repurposed as a steam barge, continuing to transport goods, such as lumber and iron, across Lake Michigan until its demise.


The steamship met its tragic end on a calm but smoke-obscured night when it collided with another vessel bearing a striking resemblance to the C. Hickox.

On 9 July 1868, historical reports detail that the Milwaukee embarked on a voyage towards Muskegon, Michigan, to collect a lumber consignment. At the same time, the C. Hickox set sail from Muskegon to Chicago, hauling a similar cargo and accompanied by a laden schooner barge.

The day was marked by tranquillity on the lake, but the skies were clouded by smoke from wildfires in Wisconsin, a precursor to an unfortunate maritime convergence. Despite the sudden descent of a dense fog, which shrouded their visibility, neither captain reduced speed. 

Maritime regulations dictated that Captain Armstrong of the Milwaukee and Captain O'Day of the C. Hickox should have moderated their speed, navigated to the right, and signalled their intentions with their steam whistles.

The situation escalated when Captain O'Day, attempting to avert disaster, found the whistle's pull chain snapped in his hand, leaving him unable to signal his manoeuvre. This led to the inevitable collision, with the C. Hickox striking the Milwaukee with devastating impact.

Despite the crew's attempts to save the Milwaukee, it succumbed to the damage and sank, with all on board surviving the ordeal. 

Michigan Shipwreck Research Association Press release

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