BY ALEX PIAZZA
LAKE ANN — Ross Richardson set out on yet another search in what had become a series of personal expeditions for one of the Great Lakes' noted shipwrecks.
The Lake Ann real estate agent and avid diver traversed the water near the Sleeping Bear Dunes for years, but never tracked down the elusive Westmoreland — a vessel that foundered near South Manitou Island in a Lake Michigan winter storm on Dec. 7, 1854.
"I didn't know if I was going to find it this year, next year, or never find it at all," said Richardson, who began his search in 2004.
But he said his expedition on July 7 proved to be a turning point in his long underwater adventure after a blip on his sonar screen displayed an unusual object.
"It stuck out," Richardson said. "I knew I had something. That's when things got exciting."
Richardson was on the phone with a fellow diver, Jim Sawtelle, of Drummond Island, when his sonar technology picked up traces of the Westmoreland, a passenger steamer also referred to as a "propeller."
"I never got too excited or cracked open the champagne bottle," he said.
Sawtelle began his search for the elusive Westmoreland in 1956 and said he could sense the enthusiasm in Richardson's voice when he picked the vessel up on his sonar screen.
"It was the most excited voice I've heard in years," said Sawtelle, who worked closely with Richardson to find the ship. "There's no more beautiful wreck in the Great Lakes. It's the most romantic wreck in the Great Lakes."
Richardson, however, kept his discovery a secret until he could set aside time to dive down and see the ship up close. His brother joined him three days later, and they filmed underwater video of the Westmoreland, which rose 30 feet above the sand in some spots. Richardson then posted the video on his website, www.michiganmysteries.com.
"I was shocked," Richardson said of his discovery. "It's an area of underwater archaeology that's kept it pretty hidden. It's a good piece of history."
Several expeditions failed in the search of the 200-foot Westmoreland, though some newspaper reports from the late 19th century indicate the vessel was located. Historians believe it was sunk by a wicked winter storm. Stories passed down over generations about treasure aboard the ship, but Richardson refutes those claims.
"There's no proof or records of it down there," he said.
Seventeen people from the vessel died after one of the ship's life boats flipped over nearly 150 years ago. And although the remains likely disintegrated beneath the depths, Richardson admits the initial dive spooked him a bit.
"I was really nervous," he said. "It was eerie."
Richardson also was shocked by how well Lake Michigan preserved the ship, but it remains a mystery as to where exactly it lies. He wouldn't disclose where he found the Westmoreland, in fear that divers will attempt to steal items aboard the vessel.
"I don't like having a secret that no one knows," he said.
Anything that rests on the bottom of Lake Michigan, like a shipwreck, belongs to the state of Michigan, said Tom Ulrich, deputy superintendent of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. State law requires people to request permits from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment, as well as the state archaeologist office, in order to bring up wrecks.
"We're very reluctant to give permits for wrecks found in underwater preserves," state Archaeologist John Halsey said. "They'll have to have a pretty good reason to take something off it. We'd like to leave as much as possible on wrecks to increase the enjoyment for sport divers."
Richardson hopes to explore the ship a few more times and possibly reveal its specific location next year. He and Sawtelle hope the discovery will increase enthusiasm among divers in northern Michigan and also spike tourism.
"This guy has done a super, super thing," Sawtelle said. "It takes a man with real guts to do that."