Civil War-era schooners found in Lake Michigan by history buff 140 years after shipwreck

Two Civil War-era schooners that collided and sank into Lake Michigan more than 140 years ago were found thanks to a diver and maritime history buff looking for shipwrecks.

The Peshtigo – a 161-foot long ship carrying coal – and St. Andrews – about 143 feet long and carrying corn – are believed to have sunk in 1878 after they hit each other between Beaver and Fox islands, northwest of Charlevoix, Michigan.

Marine historian Brendon Baillod told the Associated Press that old news reports said the collision was blamed on confusion in signal torches. He said two of the Peshtigo’s crewmen were lost, while survivors were rescued by another passing schooner.

The shipwrecks were lost to history.

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In this Aug. 24, 2019, photo provided by John Janzen, diver John Scoles maneuvers around the wreckage of the schooners Peshtigo and St. Andrews, lost in 1878 near Beaver Island in northern Lake Michigan. A group of maritime history enthusiasts led by Boyne City, Michigan diver and explorer, Bernie Hellstrom have announced the discovery of the schooners. The site was located in 2010 by Hellstrom during one of his many trips to explore the Beaver Island archipelago.

In this Aug. 24, 2019, photo provided by John Janzen, diver John Scoles maneuvers around the wreckage of the schooners Peshtigo and St. Andrews, lost in 1878 near Beaver Island in northern Lake Michigan. A group of maritime history enthusiasts led by Boyne City, Michigan diver and explorer, Bernie Hellstrom have announced the discovery of the schooners. The site was located in 2010 by Hellstrom during one of his many trips to explore the Beaver Island archipelago. (John Janzen via AP)

That is until diver Bernie Hellstrom, 63, of Boyne City, Michigan, came across to an obstruction on his depth sounder about 200 feet down to the bottom of Lake Michigan near Beaver Island about 10 years ago.

“I’ve made hundreds of trips to Beaver Island and every trip I go out the sounder is on,” he told the AP on Friday. “But if you happen to see something that’s not normal, you go back. A lot are nothing but fish schools. This was 400 feet of boat. There’s nothing out there that big that’s missing.”

This past June, he returned to the area armed with a custom-made camera system and dived into the cold depths of northern Lake Michigan. What he found was the two ships lost to history.

The Peshtigo and St. Andrews were about 10 feet apart with their masts atop one another. The hull of one of the ships has a huge gash.

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Hellstrom brought technical divers in to record video of the wrecks and Baillod was recruited to help them identify the ships.

This Aug. 24, 2019, photo provided by John Janzen, shows part of the wreckage of the schooners Peshtigo and St. Andrews, lost in 1878 near Beaver Island in northern Lake Michigan. 

This Aug. 24, 2019, photo provided by John Janzen, shows part of the wreckage of the schooners Peshtigo and St. Andrews, lost in 1878 near Beaver Island in northern Lake Michigan.  (John Janzen via AP)

According to historians, an estimated 6,000 shipwrecks sit on the bottoms of the Great Lakes. It had actually believed for many years that the Peshtigo and St. Andrews were two ships that sank farther east in Lake Huron.

Wayne Lusardi, Michigan’s state maritime archeologist, told the AP that finding the actual resting place of the two ships was a “fantastic discovery.”

“You can argue that any new discovery is important because it really gives you a first-time look at something that has been lost and missing for such a long time,” he said.

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He added that the two ships “had been mistakenly identified as two vessels up in the Straits (of Mackinac) for decades.”

“Now, it begs the question: What are those wrecks?” Lusardi said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.