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Diving rover recruited to tour 1895 shipwreck
Monday, October 15, 2001

Michigan, USA, Booth News Service, John Tunison

The hull sits 300 feet down in the blackness of Lake Michigan's floor.

Shipwreck hunters have seen only glimpses of what they believe to be the steamship Chicora, one of the most anticipated deep-water finds among West Michigan maritime buffs.

But the mystery surrounding the 200-foot merchant vessel, which sank 106 years ago in a storm, likely will become less murky later this month when a high-tech, remote-controlled research vehicle is lowered to videotape the wreckage.

Organizers of the expedition hope the footage will put to rest any doubt of the ship's identity.

Evidence collected by the M-Rover, owned by the University of Michigan, will be used to document artifacts at the shipwreck site.

Capable of diving to depths of 1,450 feet, the M-Rover can take video, still-camera and sonar images. The craft also has a mechanical arm to collect samples. It is powered by four horizontal and two vertical thrusters, can hover motionless in light to moderate currents and can spin on its own axis.

Dennis Donahue, a marine superintendent with the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in Muskegon, said all of the rover's capabilities may be needed to handle the sometimes rough fall weather on Lake Michigan.

"We're talking about the worst potential weather in late October and early November," he said.

Donahue, who helped organize the expedition, arranged to get a 49-foot U.S. Coast Guard buoy tender out of the Muskegon station to haul and deploy the rover.

The expedition -- a cooperative effort by the Coast Guard, Michigan State Police and the state Department of Environmental Quality -- is scheduled Oct. 29 through Nov. 2. Any launch will be heavily dependent on the weather.

"If everything goes right, we ought to be able to get everything done in a day," Donahue said.

Holland resident Jan Miller and officials with the Southwest Michigan Underwater Preserve located the shipwreck several weeks ago in 300 feet of water between Saugatuck and Holland. The exact location is not being disclosed to prevent anyone from trying to explore the site, they said.

The sheer depth, however, would require "technical" diving expertise and equipment that most people do not possess, they added.

Miller, president of the newly formed Chicora Preservation Society, said three visits to the site allowed investigators to capture 10 to 20 minutes of footage using a "drop camera" that is lowered over the side of a boat.

The M-Rover should provide much better evidence, he said.

Details of the dive are of special interest to Jack Park of Benton Harbor. His great-great-uncle, Edward Stines, was captain of the Chicora.

"I have a picture of the Chicora on my shelf and a piece of handrail from the ship," he said.

Park bought the handrail more than 30 years ago at a flea market. It was tagged as a piece from the shipwreck. "It evidently washed up someplace," he said.

The handrail likely was part of several pieces of debris that historians documented as washing up on shore during the weeks after the sinking. The ship's mast washed ashore south of Douglas.

The Chicora, part of the Graham and Morton Line, was loaded with flour and on a run from Milwaukee to St. Joseph in January 1895 when it sank. It carried a crew of 21 to 30 men.

Park, a bit of a historian when it comes to the Chicora, said Stines' son also was on the ship to fill in for the first mate, who could not make the trip.

Park described the Chicora as "the showpiece of the Graham and Morton Line." Equipped with staterooms, the ship could carry both freight and passengers.

"It would be like the Queen Mary of the Great Lakes," he said.

Preserve organizers will hold a presentation on the Chicora search and findings Nov. 8 at the Fort Miami Heritage Center in St. Joseph.

Copyright 2001 Michigan Live Inc.


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