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Built for cross-lake grain trade, the poorly maintained schooner met its watery end in 1881

Nearly 150 years ago, the schooner Trinidad sank in Lake Michigan, roughly ten miles off the coast of Algoma, Wisconsin.

Now, two maritime historians—Brendon Baillod and Bob Jaeck—have located the remains of the 140-foot-long ship, which they say is “remarkably intact.” “We were stunned to see that not only was the deckhouse still on her, but it still had all the cabinets with all the dishes stacked in them and all the crew’s effects,” Baillod tells the New York Times’ Orlando Mayorquin. “It’s really like a ship in a bottle. It’s a time capsule.”

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The find is the culmination of two years of searching. During that time, Baillod “collected dozens of historical news articles about the Trinidad, studied shipping lanes and located a previously unseen image of the boat,” as NPR’s Joe Hernandez writes.

The duo thought the boat “‘ticked all the boxes’ as a candidate for discovery,” according to a statement from Baillod. The crew had provided a good description of where the ship went down; it also sank slowly, meaning it likely remained intact.

In July, using sonar, Baillod and Jaeck finally found what they were looking for. With the help of Tamara Thomsen, the Wisconsin Historical Society’s underwater archaeologist, they measured the dimensions of the wreck they’d identified, which matched those of the Trinidad.

During its time, the schooner was one of the many ships used for the cross-lake grain trade. It would carry coal or iron from Oswego, New York, to Chicago and Milwaukee, then return with Wisconsin wheat, which would eventually be shipped to large East Coast cities. It was an “extremely lucrative” trade, and the Trinidad’s hundreds of trips made the ship’s owners a fortune, writes Baillod in the statement. “A lot of these schooners were built for one thing,” Baillod tells the Times. “And that was to make millionaires.”

Despite their wealth, the Trinidad’s owners skimped on ship upkeep. “The insurance records suggest that Trinidad received little of the normal maintenance and was essentially sailed into the bottom of the lake,” per the statement.

For several years, the boat stayed afloat despite known leaks. But on May 11, 1881, the hold filled with water and began to sink, eventually landing in its final resting place, nearly 300 feet below the surface. The captain and crew “escaped in a small boat, rowing for nearly eight hours in chilly weather before they came ashore in Ahnapee, which is now known as Algoma,” writes NPR. They survived; the ship’s Newfoundland dog, asleep by the cabin stove when the vessel began to go under, wasn’t so lucky.

Since then, the ship has remained at the bottom of the lake. Baillod and Jaeck haven’t announced the wreck’s exact location, though they plan to do so eventually. First, they will ensure it’s “thoroughly documented” and nominate it for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.

In the meantime, the public can see the well-preserved wreck via a 3D photogrammetry model created by Thomsen and diver Zach Whitrock.

“She’s not the only ship that’s in really good shape out in Wisconsin waters,” Baillod tells the Times, “but I’d say she’s top two or three.”