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Keystone State shipwreck: Shipwreck hunter finds mysterious 1861 Lake Huron ship

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The Keystone State shipwreck found by 72-year-old shipwreck hunter David Trotter is unraveling a mystery that has lasted for 152 years. When the Keystone State vanished in Lake Huron during a powerful winter storm in November of 1861, it was heading from Detroit to Milwaukee, reported the Associated Press on Dec. 9, 2013.

When the Keystone State shipwreck was discovered 152 years later at a depth of 175 feet by shipwreck hunter David Trotter and his team, the almost 300-foot long vessel was located about 25 to 30 miles northeast of Harrisville in northeastern Michigan, about 180 miles north of Detroit.

"My expectations were diminished because there was no reason to think she was this far north," said shipwreck hunter David Trotter about the final resting place of the Keystone State.

Added to the mystery of the location of the shipwreck is its cargo.

The Keystone State was built in Buffalo, N.Y., was almost 300 feet long, had twin stacks, a walking beam engine, and giant paddle wheels on both sides. After having been launched in 1849, the wooden steamer, which was the second-largest steamship on the Great Lakes at that time, was used as palace steamer transporting wealthy people as well as immigrants. "The interiors were made to look like the finest hotels. They were quite beautiful inside," said maritime historian Robert McGreevy. "They had leaded glass windows and carved arches and mahogany trim."

In 1857, however, an economic slump made the Keystone State too expensive to operate. "But when the Civil War started in 1861, all these ships that were laid up, all of a sudden they were worth a fortune again," said historian Robert McGreevy. "(The Keystone State) was pulled out of storage in 1861, refurbished and sent to Detroit to pick up a cargo that was already waiting for her."

According to the ship’s manifest, that cargo was supposed to consist of iron hardware, farm implements, and barrels of grain.

But what ship would carry a cargo of farm supplies in November?

"It was an emergency shipment. It was in November, and usually a ship like this would not make an urgent trip the full length of the Great Lakes that late in the year. ... There was a lot of southern sympathy in Michigan at the start of the Civil War, and there was a real threat of sabotage," said Robert McGreevy.

As to the mystery of the Keystone State and its true purpose, some believe that the real cargo consisted of munition or other Civil War supplies. Other critics however argue that it wouldn’t make sense to carry Civil War supplies away from the south and away from the conflict; especially since everyone expected the Civil War to be over within just a few months.

When shipwreck hunter David Trotter discovered the Keystone State, which sunk on Nov. 9, 1861, with 33 souls and no lifeboats on board, his team used a side-scan sonar device on his 32-foot powerboat to explore the mystery of the wooden steamer and its cargo.

Crew members made 30 dives on the site from July through September. According to diver Marty Lutz, “the stern is kind of broken up and crumbled. The boilers are in good condition, the engine is in good condition. The wheels are both standing. ... It was pretty amazing to see those sitting upright on the bottom like that."

In regard to the Keystone State’s cargo, however, David Trotter says that his team could not find any cargo or the gold that was rumored to be on the ship and that the crew of the Keystone State might have abandoned the cargo in a desperate attempt to save the ship when it was sinking.

As such, the only way to find out more about the Keystone State’s true mission and cargo would be to continue to explore Lake Heron further. "We still haven't unlocked the key to what her intent was at the time she left Detroit," said the 72-year-old shipwreck hunter.

"I think it's going to remain one of the mysteries of the Great Lakes.”



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