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Retired electrician re-writes history with shipwreck find

Date Posted: November 1 2019

There have been more than 6,000 Great Lakes shipwrecks since 1679, when the first full-size cargo ship to sail the region, Le Griffon, apparently sank in Lake Michigan.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands of those shipwrecks lie undiscovered in their watery grave among the five Great Lakes and associated rivers, offering historical relics, clues to the reason for fate of the vessels and perhaps answers to other unsolved mysteries. 

Retired IBEW Local 498 electrician Bernie Hellstrom is part of a group of underwater explorers and shipwreck historians who have a keen interest in finding and documenting the fate of those lost ships. This summer, he and other researchers announced the discovery and identification of two large schooners that collided and sunk in 1878 - the Peshtigo and the St. Andrews - and the vessels were found about 50 miles away from where most historians reckoned.

"It was an exciting find, not at all what I expected initially," said Hellstrom, 63, a Boyne City resident who retired from the electrical trade three years ago.  "To find two schooners, side-by-side," near Beaver Island, "when they were supposed to have gone down in the Straits? Well, it changes all the history books."

A decade ago, during his frequent exploration trips to Beaver Island, Hellstrom first found evidence of a massive object on the lakebed, what was later revealed to be the 161-foot, 384-ton Peshtigo and the 143-foot, 426-ton St. Andrews. He was searching in 200 feet of water with the use of an older, analog depth sounder that he used for investigating the lake bottom. The area of the collided shipwrecks is in Lake Michigan in the triangle among Beaver Island, North Fox Island and Charlevoix.   

Last summer, Hellstrom, retired with more time on his hands, went back to the spot and took video evidence from his 24-foot, 1975 Sea Ray. The electrician fashioned a self-made enclosure containing an older videocamera and lighting system, which was tethered to another homemade device on the boat to provide power to the devices, and they were lowered into the water via a winch behind the moving Sea Ray and over the shipwrecked hulks to get images. "You go back and forth, hoping you're in the right spot, like mowing the lawn," he said. 

He said a review of the videocamera's first footage showed evidence of a ship's stern, a bow and an anchor. On the next calm day, Hellstrom went out to the spot and took more video. "I saw a mast and another stern - but it wasn't the same stern," he said. That's when he knew he had found two ships. 

"Using a custom-made camera system," writes marine historian Brendon Baillod for Shipwreck World, "Hellstrom first viewed the obstruction in June 2019 and was amazed to find a literal ship graveyard in the depths beneath his boat.  The massive remains of two Civil War-era tall ships lay on the bottom, only ten feet apart in an amazing state of preservation, their masts laying over on each other and a cargo of coal strewn across the Lake bottom.  A huge gash in one of the hulls clearly showed that the vessels had collided and sank quickly."

Baillod's account in Shipwreck World said the vessels collided at 1 a.m. on June 25, 1878 in dark, hazy conditions.  The St. Andrews, with a cargo of corn, was bound from Chicago to Buffalo. The Peshtigo, with a coal cargo, was headed to Chicago from Erie, Pennsylvania. 

Most of the crews were sleeping at the time. When the ships struck each other, the St. Andrews fell into the Peshtigo, toppling her fore and main mast. The Peshtigo's stern rose 40 feet in the air before she dove to the bottom. Both ships sunk within 10 minutes of the collision. Two crew members from the Peshtigo died in the accident, which was caused by confusion in signal torches between the two passing vessels, causing the Peshtigo to turn hard to port striking the St. Andrews amidships on her port side. A passing schooner picked up the survivors from both crews.

Two divers, John Janzen and John Scoles, dove on the site in August and used a high-definition video camera to record what they saw. "They removed the 1 percent of doubt we had that it was the Peshtigo and the St. Andrews," Hellstrom said. "The cargos and the evidence of the collision point pretty much confirmed everything. There was coal still scattered around the Peshtigo, and there was white goo still visible at the St. Andrews. That's usually corn."

Finding the wrecks prompted more research by Baillod into the sinking of the vessels. Modern researchers had placed the wreck of the St. Andrews in Lake Huron, in the eastern Straits of Mackinac. That was based on the finding in that area of 1857 Eagle penny in the mast step of a wreck attributed to the St. Andrews. But the Peshtigo was never located nearby.

Baillod re-examined the historical news accounts of the incident and found that many accounts placed the collision between Beaver Island and Charlevoix in Lake Michigan, very near the location of Hellstrom's discovery.

Hellstrom, a diver himself, said he is not certified to descend 200 feet to the site of the collided wrecks he discovered, but he would love to purchase a manned submersible to allow him to make the voyage. In 1995 he also "re-located" the sunken freighter Carl Bradley, a bulk carrier that sank in a Lake Michigan gale in 1958. The exact location of the ship's remains were twice lost before Hellstrom located them in 1995 using Loran technology.

Hellstrom said the location of the shipwrecks has been reported to historical authorities at the State of Michigan. While the wrecks are protected by Michigan law, he sadly expects the site eventually will be picked over for souvenirs by scavenging divers once the location leaks out.

"I have been an active diver and boater, and have been interested in shipwrecks since Day One," said Hellstrom, who started his career in 1980 as an electrician at Detroit's IBEW Local 58, before transferring to Traverse City's Local 498. "I grew up watching shows like Sea Hunt and Jacques Cousteau, and I've done quite a bit of research on shipwrecks, like the Carl Bradley. So it is a bit of a thrill to make this discovery."

Wayne Lusardi, an archaeologist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, called the Peshtigo/St. Andrews discovery "a fantastic discovery and very unique. Rarely do collision-mates go down together and stay within 10 feet of each other. It gives us a unique opportunity to study what is basically a time capsule of history."

DIVERS John Janzen and John Scoles explore the wreckage of the Great Lakes schooners Peshtigo and St. Andrews, lost in 1878 near Beaver Island in northern Lake Michigan. Photo credit: John Janzen and John Scoles