By Meg Jones - Journal Sentinel
For almost 112 years, the steamship rested in ghostly silence at the bottom of Lake Michigan, unknown and unseen until a group of divers kicked their way down to the deck and solved a perplexing maritime mystery.
The deck houses were gone, the smokestack was tipped over and a wheelbarrow used to move cargo lay on the boat's surface.
Though the name couldn't be seen on the stern, the length of the vessel and unusual characteristics pointed to only one ship - the L.R. Doty.
Until last week, it was the largest wooden ship that had been unaccounted for in Lake Michigan.
The 291-foot-long L.R. Doty was carrying a cargo of corn when it sank during a ferocious storm on Oct. 25, 1898. All 17 people aboard and the ship's two cats, Dewey and Watson, were lost.
When a group of divers and maritime historians discovered the L.R. Doty's grave about 20 miles off Oak Creek in 320 feet of water, they found an intact ship sitting upright.
It was in remarkable condition considering it's been underwater for more than a century, courtesy of the frigid waters of the Great Lakes that act as a great preservative of wooden ships.
And the cargo, harvested from Illinois farms and destined for Ontario, Canada, is still in the hold, though it now has a layer of muck on top of it, said Brendon Baillod, a Great Lakes maritime historian who spearheaded the search.
"She vanished with no real explanation. She was a pretty new ship. We wanted to solve that mystery - why she disappeared in a Lake Michigan storm that she should have been able to handle," Baillod said Wednesday.
Built in 1893, the L.R. Doty was in the largest class of wooden vessels in existence on the Great Lakes at a time when the maritime highway was equivalent to today's interstate system. It was built with steel arches embedded in the hull, which provided extra stability, one reason its captain might have felt confident heading into bad weather.
Technical divers - breathing a special blend of mixed gas with equipment required to dive so far deep - shot video of the wreck site and snapped photos that give clues that could explain how and why the Doty sank in a storm so fierce it damaged part of the Milwaukee break wall and destroyed the boardwalk in Chicago.