By Meg Jones - Journal Sentinel
For the first time, Christopher Ring glimpsed the deck where his great-grandfather had earned his livelihood.
He looked through the open hatches to see where his ancestor's last cargo still lies. And he saw the rudder, turned hard to port, which his namesake would have ordered moved to turn his great steamship around in a brutal gale.
Ring, 64, was awe-struck.
He heard tales of his great-grandfather, whose body was never found, whose shipwreck was lying somewhere unknown and unseen at the bottom of Lake Michigan. But not until last month when the Salem, Ore., man was surfing the Internet did he learn that his great-grandfather's ship, the L.R. Doty, had finally been discovered 20 miles off Oak Creek in 320 feet of cold water.
So he and his wife booked a trip to Milwaukee and visited Discovery World-Pier Wisconsin on Sunday to see underwater video shot by John Janzen and photographs taken by John Scoles in June, when scuba divers discovered the 291-foot-long wooden steamship, the largest wreck unaccounted for in the Great Lakes.
Capt. Christopher Smith and 16 other crew members were lost when the L.R. Doty, loaded down with 107,000 bushels of corn and towing the schooner Olive Jeanette, disappeared on Oct. 25, 1898, after the tow line between the two ships broke during a ferocious storm.
Historians believe Smith was turning his football field-sized ship around to rescue the schooner when it foundered. When the crew of the Olive Jeanette, named after Smith's daughters, lost sight of the L.R. Doty in the huge swells, it was never seen again.
Ring's grandfather Walter, the oldest of Smith's children, was 15 when his father died on Lake Michigan. Walter Smith had also worked on the L.R. Doty as a wheelsman during summer breaks from school.
"I always heard the stories about the Doty," said Ring, whose grandfather raised him. "My great-grandfather complained that the Doty was always overloaded. They knew he would have turned around to go back for the Olive Jeanette."
Before the video was shown during a presentation at Discovery World, Great Lakes maritime historian Brendon Baillod recounted the history of the steamship and said he could find news clippings of only two bodies washing ashore. The remains of the other crew members are probably still below decks on the ship, whose hull is intact.
One of the 1898 news clippings reported that the captain's body had been found. But later it was learned that Smith had only one arm and could not be the body that was recovered.
"When he was a little bitty boy he was in a cotton gin accident in Scotland, that's where he grew up," Ring said about how his great-grandfather lost his arm. "Then when he was about 15, he stowed away on a sailing vessel to New York."
Smith eventually found his way to Detroit and worked for many years on the Great Lakes.
Baillod, who spearheaded the discovery of the shipwreck, read to the audience a gripping account by the cook of the Olive Jeanette who recalled the sailors pumping water from the slowly sinking schooner for two days before the ship was rescued.
Frances Browne, who had worked as a cook for many years on Great Lakes ships, recalled water flowing through the cabin as she diligently brewed hot coffee to fortify the soaked and exhausted crew.