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How Whiskey And An Old Lake Michigan Shipwreck Intertwine Today

Divers that discovered a long-lost shipwreck in Lake Michigan say it holds a treasure trove of whiskey and gold. A distillery associated with one of these divers has a unique whiskey idea tied to the shipwreck.

And those looking to salvage the shipwreck are still mired in bureaucracy and red tape.

A report in the Antique Trader online magazine told the story of a team of divers, working with historian and recreational diver Ross Richardson, finding a shipwreck on July 7th, 2010.

Westmoreland shipwreck whiskey
Divers that discovered a long-lost shipwreck in Lake Michigan say it holds a treasure trove of whiskey and gold. A distillery associated with one of these divers has a unique whiskey idea tied to the shipwreck. (image via Save The Westmoreland & Chris Roxburgh)

In the article, Richardson explained that after nearly 170 years under Lake Michigan, it was sonar that detected what turned out to be the Westmoreland, a passenger ship that sank in the winter of 1854.

Records of the shipwreck have shown that 17 people were lost, as well as 280 barrels of whiskey and a stash of gold bound for the Army. Seventeen more people survived the wreck, and told the tale.

Richardson explained in statements to the media that he estimated the treasure mired in the sand to be valued at about $17 million.

A noted shipwreck sleuth from Grand Rapids, Michigan, Richardson said he found the wreck of the Westmoreland sitting upright on the lake bed, 200 feet under the surface of a bay not far from where summer tourists play along the Sleeping Bear Dunes Lakeshore.

So what’s keeping the treasure underwater? The article in Antiques Trader cited Michigan state law that prevents amateur divers from salvaging shipwrecks without authorization.

And, Richardson explained, that authorization is still not granted. He did, however, get to explore the wreck and he’s offered details about it.

Currently, there are no known images of the Westmoreland, a propeller steamer that sank on Dec. 7, 1854 in Platte Bay. But accounts did say it was supposedly carrying gold coins and whiskey.

“It’s probably one of the most well-preserved shipwrecks from the 1850s on the planet,” Richardson said, in the Antiques Trader article.

The accounts of the shipwreck go on to say that the Westmoreland sank after battling through a blizzard on Lake Michigan, and crashing waves eventually extinguished the fire in the boiler, leaving the cargo-heavy steamer without power. It sank in heavy winter seas about three miles off a remote stretch of Lake Michigan coastline.

In recent weeks, Richardson said he’s joining forces with Michigan’s Mammoth Distilling to further rescue the whiskey barrels trapped in the sand of the wreck.

In an article with the online news magazine MLive, Richardson said that instead of leaving shipwrecks like the Westmoreland to decay on the lakebed, they want to salvage pieces of wood and use them to make whiskey.

He, along with the whiskey makers at Mammoth Distilling, noted that they believe that it’s time to update Michigan law when it comes to historical wrecks, and fight against the invasive species that greatly deteriorate shipwrecks.

In fact, they’ve formed a nonprofit around what they’re calling the Save The Westmoreland project. On the website, the group shared one idea, “Using shipwreck timber to make a whiskey with a unique flavor and provenance is a way to ‘save’ a wreck.”

For now, recent media coverage and publicity has attracted the attention of several universities, that in turn have expressed interest in mapping the Westmoreland.

Richardson said he’s still hoping to get permission to bring up the treasure.

Gary Carter

Gary Carter has been at the helm of metro newspapers, magazines, and television news programs as well as a radio host and marketing manager. He is a writer/editor/photographer/designer by trade, with more than 30 years experience in the publishing and marketing field. Gary enjoys working to build something great, whether that be a novel project, a start-up, an organization, a fresh-face to the journalistic world, or even something as simple as a short story. A native Texan and a Pacific Northwest convert, he is a whiskey enthusiast who cut his teeth on it ... literally!

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