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A 150-year-old shipwreck was found in Lake Michigan

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

It's been nearly 150 years since the schooner Trinidad sank in the waters of Lake Michigan. This summer, the boat was found in almost 300 feet of water off the coast of Wisconsin. Brendon Baillod is a marine historian who helped discover the wreck. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

BRENDON BAILLOD: Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: Will you begin by describing what this ship looked like in its golden years? Paint a picture of what it would have been doing before it sank in 1881.

BAILLOD: Sure. I mean, this vessel was part of a huge fleet of grain schooners that carried prairie gold, as they called it, out of Wisconsin to the big cities of the eastern Great Lakes, Buffalo and Oswego, N.Y. And then from there, that what would go on canal boats down to the East Coast to the big cities like New York. And if you were eating a sandwich in New York City in 1870, the bread probably came from wheat in Wisconsin.

So these vessels were - had huge, towering masts, billowing sails. There were hundreds and hundreds of them on the lakes.

SHAPIRO: Wow.

BAILLOD: Massive fleet of tall ships. And this was a particularly nice one. Her first news accounts when she was launched said that she was one of the most beautifully outfitted vessels on the lakes with huge, spacious cabin and staterooms in it is how they described it, which would have been unusual for her to see a grain schooner described that way.

SHAPIRO: Wow. I know you did tons of research into this ship before you finally found the wreck, so you know a lot about why it went down, what the circumstances were for its failure. And sounds like it was not very well cared for. Its lifespan was - what? - like half that of similar ships?

BAILLOD: Yeah. It's kind of a tragedy. Looking at the insurance records, you know, a lot of vessels like her lasted 30, 40 years and had regular maintenance, but it was clear that her owners kind of drove her into the lake bottom. And why not? I mean, she was making millions of dollars for them, you know, adjusted for inflation. She made them rich men. But, you know, vessels were easy to build. And they just pocketed the money and milked her like a cash cow. She, by the time she was 10 years old, was starting to fall apart. Her - one of her blocks fell from a loft, almost killing her captain in 1879 because her rigging was starting to deteriorate.

SHAPIRO: And although the ship sank, the entire crew survived, with the exception of the poor dog.

BAILLOD: Yeah. It was a lucky stroke on their part. This vessel was leaking pretty badly, but that was nothing new. They had installed extra pumps on her, actually. And so the men were all working the pumps. And it seemed like she was holding her own. And suddenly, off Algoma, Wisc., she gave a violent lurched forward and plunged for the bottom. They had no time to get their possessions out of the cabin. The captain lost his fur coat. The men, some of them weren't wearing really anything to protect them from the elements, and they had to row eight hours in through, you know, 40-degree weather and 4- to 5-foot waves.

SHAPIRO: You did so much research. You must have felt like you knew the story of this ship so well. What did it feel like to finally lay eyes on the wreck for the first time?

BAILLOD: It was an amazing experience. I mean, my wreck-hunting partner, Bob Jaeck, and I were - we were pinching ourselves. We couldn't believe it. All of a sudden, this strange indistinct smudge came crawling across the screen. And, you know, a 140-foot ship doesn't look like much when, you know, you're scanning 2,500 feet total. We weren't so sure what it was at first, but we both agreed eventually that we should turn around and look at it again. We slowed down to half speed and, you know, brought it into about 600 feet resolution. And it almost burned a hole in the screen. It was very clearly a shipwreck. And then we really were stoked. We got the phones out and started recording the screen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BAILLOD: Robert, I think we may have just found her. That looks to me, for all intents and purposes, like a shipwreck.

But I'll tell you when it really hit us was when we first put the remote-operated vehicle down there. And when we saw that ship's wheel sticking out of the bottom, it was eerie.

SHAPIRO: That wheel.

BAILLOD: It was like seeing a ghost ship.

SHAPIRO: The wreck is remarkably intact. Can you describe what it looks like?

BAILLOD: I mean, I guess the the best way to put it is it really looks like a ghost ship because the rigging - she was wire rigged, and so it's still present. Her rigging, her masts, her spars are all collapsed on her side. And she looks kind of like a ship in a bottle. Her deck house is still on her. And that's something rare that we seldom see on Great Lakes shipwrecks. They usually blow off when the ship sinks. And looking inside that deck house, you can still see the dishes stacked on the shelves. I mean, literally, it looks almost like you could raise this ship and she would sail.

BAILLOD: Wow. Brendon Baillod, underwater archaeologist and author of "Fathoms Deep But Not Forgotten: Wisconsin's Lost Ships." Thanks so much for talking with us, and congratulations on the find.

SHAPIRO: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Linah Mohammad
Prior to joining NPR in 2022, Mohammad was a producer on The Washington Post's daily flagship podcast Post Reports, where her work was recognized by multiple awards. She was honored with a Peabody award for her work on an episode on the life of George Floyd.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.