MUSKEGON, Mich. (WZZM) – The bottom of Lake Michigan is literally a graveyard of shipwrecks. Local maritime historians say 1,200 of the 2,000 sunken vessels in Lake Michigan no longer exist because they hit shore and broke apart.
Experts add that about 360 wrecks have been found in the lake's deeper water, but there are still many wrecks out there that remain undiscovered.
WZZM recently was invited aboard a boat with a group of explorers as they found a historic steamship, off the coast of Muskegon, more than a century after it sank.
Members of the Michigan Shipwreck Research Association say this is one of the deepest wrecks ever discovered in Lake Michigan.
The story begins around midnight on February 9, 1899. Lake Michigan was ice-caked and the 214-foot John V. Moran bucked the ice floes on its run from Milwaukee to Muskegon to deliver a cargo of barreled flour and package goods. The ship was only 11 years old and had an iron-reinforced hull for winter transit, but the conditions on this particular day were too much for the steamer.
Ice struck a hole in the hull and water began pouring in.
Captain John McLeod dumped as much of the cargo as he could, in order to lighten the load and try to keep the ship afloat, but it began slipping underneath the ice.
McLeod and his 24-man crew faced a potentially deadly decision: stay on the steamer and await rescue, or take to the ice and try to reach the safety of the steamer Naomi, which was three miles away.
They chose to walk on the ice, in what was reported at the time to be -30 degree temperatures, to the Naomi.
They blew their distress whistle to alert the other ship.
Dragging a lifeboat across the ice, three crewmen started walking toward the Naomi with only beams from their lanterns to light their path. They managed to get the attention of the Naomi, which then began plowing through the frozen lake to reach them. As the Naomi drew near the Moran, the remaining 22 men carefully crossed the ice and climbed aboard.
Fortunately, everyone survived.
According to newspaper accounts, early the next morning, The Moran was still afloat. The Naomi then tried to tow the stricken vessel toward Muskegon, but it quickly became clear that it would not make it the 15 miles to shore.
The Moran was left to its fate.
Newspaper accounts say Captain Thompson of the car ferry Muskegon, which ran the same route the Lake Express does today, was the last to see the Moran.
After the Naomi and Muskegon abandoned the Moran, it was never seen again. Searchers were unable to locate the steamer. It was determined that the Moran foundered, but where and when, nobody knew.
The ship was not seen again for 116 years.
"The John V. Moran has been on our hit list for quite a while," said Craig Rich, co-director of the Michigan Shipwreck Research Association. "We've quietly been researching it, and decided this year we'd go out after it."
"We've covered a lot of territory in the shallower water, which is why we're out searching so deep these days," added Valerie van Heest, author, maritime historian and co-director of the MSRA. "Each year we define a goal and a ship we'd like to find."
The group of explorers set out on their expedition to find the Moran in early June 2015.
"Even though the newspaper accounts from 1899 were sketchy, we were able to narrow down the search area to about 10 square miles," said van Heest.
"We intended to spend a full week on the lake," said van Heest.
A few days into the search, van Heest said rough waters became an issue, so they decided on their last day of good weather, they'd run side-scan sonar all night.
"It was 3:30 in the morning on June 5 when several of our crew members were asleep," said van Heest. "All of the sudden, the boat operator saw something on side-scan, and woke everybody up in the dark of night."
The image on sonar was an unmistakable target of a shipwreck, van Heest said.
"We weren't sure if it was the Moran, but we knew it was a shipwreck, and a big one," added van Heest.
Because the wreck was in 365 feet of deep water, van Heest contacted the Michigan State Police Underwater Recovery Team, which uses a high-tech remote operated vehicle (ROV) with a camera attached to it.
"An ROV can acquire hours of video in one dive, whereas divers can only stay down about 15 minutes, and we needed to find evidence to confirm the identity," said van Heest.
The MSRA explorers, along with three members of the Michigan State Police, and two members from WZZM 13 News, ventured out to the wreck site in mid-July. Once they reached the location, they dropped anchor and then tied their boats together.
"We will deploy the ROV in over 300 feet of water," said MSP Sgt. Dale Lynema. "Hopefully we'll have some clarity in the water and we'll be able to get some video image of it."
The ROV was dropped into the lake. Once it started to descend, it took less than 10 minutes for it to reach the lake bottom.
As the ROV moved along, all of the sudden a very large shadow started to materialize on the computer screen, which had a large group gathered around it, waiting in suspense.
"You're approaching it," van Heest said to Sgt. Lynema. "Yes, that's it!"
Thanks to ambient light at 365 feet, the image of the bow of a shipwreck came into clear view.
"Oh, look at that," exclaimed van Heest. "A standing mast; there's the front of it; there's the pilot house!"
"I hurriedly jumped over to the police boat and took a look at the screen," said Rich. "There was this absolutely pristine, beautiful shipwreck sitting on the bottom."
After the initial awe of seeing this massive shipwreck, van Heest and Sgt. Lynema began their mission of gathering enough visual evidence of this sunken vessel to hopefully determine its identity.
After watching the first images the ROV was capturing of the ship, it didn't take long for van Heest to exclaim, "this may be the most intact shipwreck in the Great Lakes, certainly in Lake Michigan."
"The rigging that holds the mast up is still in place, and all the railings are intact," said van Heest, while she remained fixed on the computer screen. "It looks like it's sitting at the dock on a dark evening."
"I sat next to Sergeant Lynema, the ROV operator, watching the monitor with a historic photo of the Moran in my hand," sand van Heest.
As the ROV began examining the bow of the ship, the live images on the monitor looked exactly like the historic photo of the Moran that van Heest was holding.
"We're looking at the same view," said van Heest. "It's from the same perspective as the photograph!"
Enough evidence and imagery had been captured by the ROV, after about 30 minutes, for van Heest to identify the wreck.
"Well, I think based on just this [comparing the image of the Moran on the historic photo to the image of the shipwreck on the computer screen], there is no doubt this is the Moran", van Heest said, confirming the ship's identity.
The mystery was a mystery no longer. The John V. Moran had been found after 116 years.
"What's so amazing is when you spend years studying something, and looking at historic photos, then to see it in the flesh, so to speak, is a moment of revelation," said van Heest, still glued to the monitor.
Once the identity was confirmed, the ROV began taking a tour of the vessel.
"We now had the opportunity to look at things that the historic photographs had never captured," added van Heest. "We could literally go up to the pilot house windows and peek in."
And that's exactly what the ROV did. While steering the tethered robot with a joystick, Sergeant Lynema brought it up to the pilot house, turned the light on the camera, and appearing on the screen was the Moran's double-wheel steering column. It was lightly covered in zebra mussels, but completely intact.
"It was phenomenal to look at equipment on the Moran that we never knew existed," said van Heest.
The ROV then pulled back and began closely examining the Moran's bow.
"The ladder," van Heest said loudly. "It's like you can just walk up all these ladders!"
The ROV then began travelling aft from the pilot house. Immediately coming into view were all the passenger cabins along theMoran's starboard side. All the railings remained intact, and some of the passenger cabin windows didn't shatter during the sinking.
"We also saw the ventilators that let the air out of the engine room," said van Heest. "There's virtually no damage on this shipwreck."
As the ROV drifted along the Moran's starboard side, on its way to the stern, Valerie van Heest, Craig Rich and the rest of the MSRA crew were hoping to make two more discoveries – to see if the smokestack survived the sinking , and if any damage could be found, which could determine the exact cause of the Moran's demise.
"The smokestack is down," said van Heest, as the ROV captured an image of where it once stood. "We've never seen a shipwreck with a standing smokestack, so that was to be expected."
Then, as the ROV made it to the Moran's stern, the image of a hole appeared in the ship's hull. The ROV footage showed that several pieces of planking had torn away from the starboard-side stern.
"You have to believe water was gushing in there," said van Heest, as she closely looked at the ROV images of the damage.
According to van Heest, MSRA technical divers plan to visit the wreck soon to document the ship in more detail. The divers will closely examine the hull damage near the stern, and some bow damage that van Heest and her crew discovered while scouring through the raw ROV footage a week after the dive.
"For the shipwreck to be in such intact condition suggests a very slow, gentle sinking caused by a trickle-like inflow of water, not a tremendous inrush," said van Heest. "We believe that a small gash that we observed near the bow, caused by ice, was the source of that slow leak, not the larger hole at the stern where wooden planks have popped their fasteners. We are convinced that the stern damage, and mounds of clay on the stern deck, were caused when the ship hit bottom, going 'down by the tail' as reported by witnesses."
Van Heest also says the skilled divers will be able to explore the ship's interior.
Due to the tether, it would have been risky for the Michigan State Police ROV to do that, for fear it might get stuck.
"Only six historic photos of the John V. Moran exist," said van Heest. "We know where it is now, and with this time capsule in hand, there is so much more that we can learn from its exploration."
There's an interesting side-note to the discovery of the John V. Moran. It was one of many steamers owned by Captain Edward Gifford Crosby (E.G. Crosby), who founded the Crosby Transportation Company, which operated out of ports in Muskegon, Grand Haven and Milwaukee.
Crosby was born in New York, and came to Michigan in 1856. He lived in Muskegon in 1871, before moving to Milwaukee in 1897.
The Moran sank two years after Crosby's departure to Milwaukee.
Thirteen years later (March 1912), Crosby and his family happened to be vacationing in Europe.
The family had booked return passage to New York on another ship, before Crosby ran into one of his business associates, Charles M. Hays, who was the president of the Grand Trunk Railway, which served Grand Haven.
Mr. Hays had been invited aboard a steamship, making its maiden voyage, named the Titanic. A gentleman named Joseph Bruce Ismay, who was the chairman and manager of the White Star Line steamships, offered the invite to Mr. Hays.
It was reported that E.G. Crosby had intended to come back on a ship leaving Europe on March 28, 1912, but decided to change his mind in order to travel back on the ill-fated Titanic, with Hays.
E.G. Crosby lost his life April 15, 1912 when the RMS Titanic vanished beneath the black surface of the Atlantic Ocean, some 400 miles east of the Grand Banks of Newfoundland.
Crosby, ironically, suffered the same fate as his million dollar steamship, the John V. Moran, did.
The MSRA conducts its expeditions with funding from its members and private donations and utilizes the services of side-scan sonar operator David Trotter from Canton, Mich. Trotter is an explorer who has found over 90 shipwrecks in his 40-year career.
The MSRA has previously discovered 15 historic shipwrecks prior to this new discovery.
If you'd like to learn more about the John V. Moran, there's already an exhibit on display at the Michigan Maritime Museum in South Haven, Mich.