After 18 hours spent battling a blizzard on Lake Michigan, the fate of the Westmoreland was sealed less than three miles from safety.
At 10 a.m. on Dec. 7, 1854, rising water in the bilge finally extinguished the fire in the boiler, leaving the cargo-laden steamer powerless and thrown to the mercy of heavy, icy seas off a then-remote stretch of Lake Michigan coastline.
Half the souls on board the Westmoreland would soon perish in the deep, frigid waters of Platte Bay.
The other half would spread the legend of a ship reputed to be carrying $100,000 in gold coins in her safe, and 280 barrels of whiskey in her hold, sparking more than a century of treasure hunters that would search in vain for the wreck.
Search in vain, that is, until 155 years after the sinking, when a diver and shipwreck sleuth from Grand Rapids would find what others could not; the wreck of the Westmoreland sitting upright on the lake bed, 200 feet under the surface of a bay where summer vacationers frolic in the shadow of the Sleeping Bear Dunes Lakeshore.
“It is probably one of the most well-preserved shipwrecks from the 1850s on the planet,” said Ross Richardson, who found the wreck on July 7, 2010.
“It’s in amazing condition.”
Richardson, a former 17-year Steelcase employee who lived in Grand Rapids for 40 years before relocating to Lake Ann in 2008, will return to West Michigan on Thursday, Nov. 15 for a presentation on the search and discovery of the Westmoreland at the Grand Rapids Public Library main branch downtown.