The mysteries of two cargo schooners lost in the 1860s to the depths of Lake Michigan have been solved, thanks to a little detective work.
Members of the Holland-based Michigan Shipwreck Research Associates told a crowd of 500 maritime enthusiasts Saturday the story of tracking down and identifying the schooners William Tell and A.P. Dutton.
"I was the first diver down to the William Tell, which is in about 200 feet of water off the South Haven coast," MSRA director Valerie van Heest told the Knickerbocker Theatre audience.
She said it took some research after the boat's discovery to prove it was the William Tell because the boat burned to the waterline before it sank in 1869 leaving few clues for the discovery team.
Speaking at the 12th annual "Mysteries & Histories Beneath the Inland Seas" program, van Heest said the dive team found mounds of a white substance at what was believed to be William Tell shipwreck. All they had to go on was the cargo of quick lime the ship was carrying when it sank.
They took a bucket sample and turned it over to Hope College Chemistry professor and department chairman Graham Peaslee who, through chemical analysis, determined it was lime.
"Lime is a very explosive and flammable substance when it gets wet and the cargo likely got wet and set the two-masted schooner on fire," said MSRA researcher Craig Rich, who is the author of the new book "For Those In Peril: Shipwrecks of Ottawa County Michigan" published by In-depth Editions.
By determining the cargo was lime, they were able to positively identify the ship as the William Tell. And, through the process of elimination, they determined the shipwreck discovered in 2004 was the A.P. Dutton.
"The A.P. Dutton sank in 1868 with a cargo of school furniture destined for a new one-room school house in Berrien County. They had to hold the school dedication without furniture after the A.P. Dutton went down," van Heest said.