A shipwreck bearing £16.5million’s worth in gold coins and a sizable cache of whiskey barrels may be set to reveal its secrets — eventually. Seventeen souls died when, en route for Mackinac Island, the Westmoreland sank to the bottom of Lake Michigan during a storm on December 7, 1854. As many of her passengers managed to make it ashore, where they faced a 40-mile trek to the nearest town. Having been lost for more than 150 years, the ship’s position — at a depth of 180ft beneath the waters of Platte Bay — was finally pinpointed by diver Ross Richardson back in 2010 after “about a decade’s worth of research.” The Westmoreland is sitting upright on the lakebed, and can be identified by the “hogging” arches that run along both sides of the vessel. Although it is forbidden to recover artefacts from wrecks in the Great Lakes without a permit, talks are now underway to salvage the Westmoreland’s cargo, although results are not expected for years or “maybe decades” to come.
Mr Richardson said: “We are in the beginning stages of discussing a salvage operation to recover the whiskey casks and possibly other artefacts.
“The Westmoreland is an underwater museum, filled with perfectly-preserved relics from the 1850s, and preserving them for public display would be a worthy cause.
“She is one of the most intact and best-preserved shipwrecks from the 1850s on the planet.”
The Westmoreland was carrying a whopping 280 barrels of whiskey — along with other winter supplies — for soldiers based in a fort on Mackinac Island.
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The fort on Mackinac Island had strategic importance for its location overlooking the meeting point of Lake Michigan with Lake Huron.
It is thought that the gold borne by the Westmoreland — in the form of double eagle pieces — may have been intended as pay for the garrison.
“It made life very hard for the army when she did not arrive,” said diver Chris Roxburgh, who has taken photographs of the wreck.
He added: “The gold coins would be worth about a million dollars if we melted them down and sold them.
“The true value is the numismatic value of these coins, which could realistically be more than $20million [£16.5million] today.”
Despite the staggering value of the gold coins, the recovery operation the divers have in mind would instead be focussed on the whiskey.
Mr Richardson added: “A regional distillery is extremely interested in salvaging the whiskey barrels for testing and selling.”
The location of the wreck is expected to make the salvage efforts as challenging as the initial search to find the vessel.
Mr Richardson said: “The area where the Westmoreland sank was not flat and smooth, like the majority of Lake Michigan’s bottom. It was full of underwater sand dunes and cliffs, making early search efforts very difficult.
“Around 2008, there was a breakthrough in side-scan sonar technology, and an affordable and capable sonar unit was made available to the public.
“I was an early adopter of this technology and it’s perfect for searching the area where the Westmoreland sank. Many searchers were in the right area, but lacked the right tools for the job.”
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Mr Roxburgh added: “It’s a difficult dive, since there is no rope or buoy attached to the ship — and it’s almost 200 feet deep. The water temperature [during one dive] was freezing cold at 34F (1C).
“The gold and whiskey is deeper in the wreck, in the hold or cabins. And the deck is partially collapsed, so getting deeper into the vessel is hard.”
Nevertheless, Mr Richardson is optimistic that the Westmoreland’s lost treasures will see the light of day once again.
He said: “Eventually, yes. But we are a long way, maybe decades, from making that happen. Only time will tell if the Westmoreland will share her secrets with us.”
Mr Richardson has described his quest to find the wreck in his book, “The Search for the Westmoreland: Lake Michigan’s Treasure Shipwreck”.
Additional reporting by Michael Havis.
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