Every shipwreck researcher or lakeboat buff has had the dream of snooping about along the backwaters and stumbling upon the long-forgotten remains of an old shipwreck. Well, here is your chance to do exactly that- come this way and view the long-lost remains of an old wooden Great Lakes shipwreck. Walking along the banks of the rivers- especially when you venture along the backwaters- it is difficult to imagine there is much to discover beyond some trash and driftwood. Yet when viewed with a historian’s perspective it becomes far more than simply a forgotten channel and murky backwater. The exact location of the backwater in this story is in Michigan’s lower peninsula, south of Bay City in a now unused channel of water on the west side of an island known as the “Middle Grounds.” Today, no one uses this area. but it has not always been this way

Prior to the 1900s the Middle Grounds were surrounded with the industry of lumber. Today’s forgotten backwater was a busy waterway with a swing-bridge across its entrance.

 On the advice of Bay City Maritime historian Don Comtois, I, Great Lakes research historian and author Wes Oleszewski, and my research buddy D.J. Story went to the suspected location of a wreck which Don had discovered many years earlier when the water in the river got very low. We wanted to find out exactly what was there. Known as the “West Channel,” the backwater once supported two saw mills, at least four salt-works and brine wells plus a barrel factory known as the “Standard Hoop Company.” For decades there had been rumors that circulated locally of old wrecks in the West Channel. Still, it was not until November 8th, 2000, when the water in the Saginaw River was a remarkable 26 inches lower than normal, that we would be able to look for the rumored wreck. On that day we discovered that the rumors were true, there was indeed a long forgotten shipwreck in the West Channel!

As D.J. and I stood there on the mudflat we looked out around the waterway and in the distance we saw some old piles sticking up- that was nothing. We spotted some wood sticking up out of the murky water on the far shore- that may be something. We saw some other piles far to the south- that was nothing. Then, as I casually looked down I saw a hunk of wood sticking up out of the mud right between my feet… 

...and there was another, and another and another! The led away and curved toward the water in the exact shape of a boat’s hull!

“I can’t see much of anything,” D.J. quipped.

“D.J.,” I replied, “look at yer’ feet.”

Looking down his eyes traced the exact lines that I had seen. He leaped straight up as if he’s just stepped on a rattle snake!

“Holy cow!” he shouted, “we’re standin’ on it!!”

Indeed we were standing on a long forgotten shipwreck. We drove to the nearest hardware store and I bought measuring equipment. Returning we proceeded to photograph and measure the wreck as we documented every inch of it with cameras. I returned to the site several times over the following year before the water came back up and during that time I spent many hours researching the wreck.

Site Map
As you first step through the thick brush and onto the mudflat you seem to be looking at nothing but driftwood, fallen trees and a lot of ordinary junk. This area is rarely visited by anyone other than an occasional carp fisherman. But when you take on the perspective of a maritime research historian, you have to look just a little bit closer… From out of the mud, the ribs of a ship can be seen sticking up. Long plank-like timbers rest in the mud in an orderly pattern.

The wreck that rests in the West Channel is difficult to recognize at first glance, because the wreckage is mostly buried in the mud. The parts of the wreck are, in some areas, badly scattered. This site map shows the location of the documented components of the shipwreck.

Looking south, it is clear that the reason why the planks appear to lay so neatly upon the site is because they are actually hull timbers fastened to the ribs with spikes.

At the northern end of the site, the ribs begin to set more upright and their pattern arcs toward the

From this angle, one of the outer hull timbers can be seen still attached to the ribs. To the right, the submerged outline of the other side of the hull is visible.

In this view we see the vessel’s bow ribs have collapsed and now lay flat in the mud. To the right side of the view, the inner hull timbers can be seen still attached to the ribs. The unusual pointed ends of the vessel’s ribs was likely caused by years of ice friction or perhaps by the burning of the vessel. Additionally, the deadwood (which are the network of timbers used as a sort of “filler” to take up excess space when shaping curved sections of the bow and stern) is very light.

Below is one of the vessel’s outer hull timbers. It has been worn thin by the action of many decades of ice and exposure to the chemically polluted mud and water. Note also, the wrought iron spike in the center rib. It has been bent down at a 60 degree angle. All of the spikes observed on the wreck are 6- inches long and 3/8- inches square with molded heads.

Looking back toward the stern area we can see the curved ribs of the vessel sticking up out of the mud. Note that each rib is made up of two timbers- these individual timbers are called “futtocks,” and each of them are 3 inches wide. The futtocks are all placed on 24- inch centers. A wrought iron bar, known in wooden shipbuilding terms as a “bolt” connects the futtocks. Note also the outer hull timber and and the unbent spikes visible in the center of the picture. These unbent spikes indicate that the futtock to which they were fastened was likely burned away.

Looking back across the wreck several notes can be made. 

First, notice the three staggered fastening bolts sticking up from the timber in the lower left- this may be a part of her keelson. Next notice how the remaining ribs in the center of the view appear to be almost evenly sliced off- which could indicate sinking while burning. Lastly, notice how the entire wreck seems to simply stop abruptly, rather than arcing to an orderly point as did the other end. This could indicate that this section was demolished in the effort to salvage machinery such as boilers and engine equipment. Later we'll see how that is true.

 Additional hull timbers and some unidentified metal pieces could be seen in the water just off shore. Three days after this study was done, however, the river came up an additional 8 inches, and the wreck was almost totally submerged.

The distance between the bow timbers and the point where the regular pattern of the vessels ribs ends abruptly is just under 100 feet.

A good rule for investigating the bones of old, unidentified shipwrecks is to let the wreck itself tell you its story. In other words, do not rush to conclusions and do not shape your findings to fit the outcome that you may desire. It is far better to keep looking at the wreck and keep pondering it as you allow it to reveal itself to you. After all, it has been where it is for a very long time. It will likely be in the same spot a few more years or even a few more decades, yet much surrounding it may change and new discoveries can be made. Such was the case for our mystery wreck.

If you like Wes' research
check out his latest Great Lakes
 shipwreck book! Get it sent to you
autographed and personalized HERE

In the case of our “Mystery Wreck,” in March of 2001 an extreme south, southwest wind revealed many answers for us. This wind literally blew the water out of the Saginaw River and into Saginaw Bay and thus lowered the water to a record low that had not been seen for about 30 years. At the wreck site, the vessel was exposed like the bones of a beached whale

It was clear the pieces of wreckage seen earlier as just at the surface were actually pieces of one single vessel that had been split into two sections. The portion that was lodged in the mud bank was the forward two-thirds of the boat and the section out in the water was the stern, which is laying perpendicular to the main section of the hull.

Her bed timbers are seen here, as are the bolts for mounting the engine. Notice how the bolts are twisted and bent, which could indicate that the engine was twisted as it was removed.

This portion of the hull has been constructed with unusually close-spaced frames. Normally such frames are spaced 10 to 12 inches apart, but these are instead placed tightly together.

Here we have a detailed study of the bed timbers and engine mounting bolts. Notice that, although the bolts are twisted in assorted directions, each is neatly cut off at exactly the same length. This indicates that the engine was loosened, but then had to be torqued from the hull with some force.

The object seen here near the water (arrow) appears to be a blow-down pipe or some sort of discharge for a vessel’s boiler.

Of course, with every answer these wrecks give, they also generate several new questions, such as these tubes. Even Great Lakes vessel scholars are not sure what purpose these tubes served. They are indeed tubes of some sort and the forward one has some sort of fitting attached (click to enlarge this photo- you won't regret it)

 This wreck is now telling us that she was indeed a steamer of some sort.

One of the biggest puzzles that the wreck offers is this series of iron straps and the odd cylinder that is embedded within them. At first look, this appears to be the tail shaft and flange for a propeller shaft as well as the flange that would seal the shaft and prevent water intrusion. The vertical straps appear to be the support for the workings, but there are some inconsistencies here.

The deadwood on which this cylinder is mounted is far too short, as most propellers had a large area of deadwood between the shaft and the keel. Additionally, the iron straps are curved when they should be straight and vertical. The straps are also slightly out of place. Their proper position should be directly on the tail shaft.

Zooming out we can clearly see the relationship of the stern piece to the remains of the main hull. 

Overall, it appears we have been looking at two pieces of a single vessel, which has been cracked open like an egg. The break appears to be right at the location of the former engine and boiler, as if it had been done deliberately to more easily remove that equipment.

Of course, even the most mysterious of suspects can yield a good clue as to their identity. In this case, our biggest clue is in the stem of the wreck. The thick stem timber is fully consistent with that of a wooden tugboat. Additionally, this stem has a “stem-iron” (arrow) attached. A stem-iron is an iron strap that is attached to the stem timber of a wooden tug and used to protect a vessel that is often called upon to push things. The stem-iron that is attached to our mystery wreck is totally consistent with that type of vessel. There is no doubt that these are the remains of a steam tug.

While there is no way to positively know her actual identity, there are two fairly good suspects. After a careful search of the records of vessels lost on the Saginaw River in the area of the Middle Grounds, only two boats have thus far been found. Both are described as “side-wheel steam tugs” and would have been very similar in appearance to the drawing provided here. Suspect #1 is the L.G. MASON which is reported to have burned in her slip at the Murphy & Dorr mill just after midnight on the morning of Friday, October 2nd, 1886. There are only two problems with this suspect, A] She was listed as only being 69 tons and would likely have been somewhat smaller than the wreck at the site. B] The Murphy & Dorr mill was on the island of the Middle Grounds itself, and thus the wreck site is on the wrong side of the channel. Additionally, Murphy & Dorr had docks on both the east and west sides of the Middle Grounds island and the records do not say on which side of the island the wreck took place. So, the site of the MASON’s grave could actually be on the other side of the island.

Suspect #2 is the KATY REID. She is listed as having burned in the area of the Middle Grounds. The REID was a side-wheel tug that is listed as having been constructed at DePere, Wisconsin in 1867 and measuring 101 feet long, 25 feet in beam and 10 feet deep. Her official number was 14255 and she was listed as being 103 tons- a size consistent with the wreck at the site. She is listed as having burned on October 20th, 1873 and her equipment is reported to have been salvaged during that winter.

In the mid 1800s the terms “tug,” “steambarge” and “steamer” were often interchanged. When it came to the vessels needed for towing rafts of logs around the rivers, however, a very special vessel was required. It would have to be powerful, cheap, able to operate in very shallow water and not tend to foul its propulsion equipment. A side-wheel steamer was the ideal craft for this role. Normally, these early tugs were of simple design. The shipbuilders constructed them without using plans or drawings- but rather through the use of skill alone. These boats had a hull that was very similar to that of a small schooner, and simple steam engines powered by small boilers. The result was a cheap steam-powered vessel that was easy to build. Additionally, the use of a side-wheel propulsion system allowed the boat to work in water that was far more shallow than that in which a propeller could function. They were perfect for sailing far into the rivers and snatching rafts of logs from distant lumber camps. Since these tugs were intended for shallow water and inland rivers rather than the stresses of the deep waters and rough seas of the open lakes, they were built of “light” construction. In other words, they had fewer fastening bolts and spikes and no metal strapping.

Author's concept of the KATY REID- this NOT a photo of her.
A side wheel tug, such as the KATY REID, would have been constructed quickly and cheaply using the most handy technology in existence at the time. A vessel of this sort would likely have been powered by a simple locomotive-style horizontal steam engine of the 1860s era. Such engines were often “deck-mounted,” meaning they were placed right upon the deck rather than deep in the hull on the keel. Thus there was no need for the construction of heavy timbers, or “sleepers” on her keel to support the engine. Such an absence of these heavy timbers is consistent with the wreck site in this study. These vessels had their boilers heated by burning the most abundant fuel that was available in the region at the time… wood! Simple cordwood was used to stoke the fires in the vessel’s boilers. 

The most common steam engine used in the era of vessels such as the KATY REID was a type known as the “horizontal” single-cylinder engine. The image here was taken from an 1874 engraving in a newspaper ad and depicts a horizontal engine from the era of the REID.

These engines were amazingly common and quite versatile. They were used in saw mills, locomotives, pumps and small vessels. The best thing about such versatility was that if your engine were to break, parts were common and easily obtained. Additionally, there were large numbers of engineers who could operate and repair these engines.

Local newspaper articles state that the KATY REID burned late in October of 1873. The exact location of the REID’s burning is listed as “Staudacher’s Dock” in Salzburg. This is important, not only because the West Channel and the wreck that we have studied is located in the area that was known as Salzburg, but if we can pinpoint the location of “Staudacher’s dock” and if that location is the same as our wreck, we can very likely place the name KATY REID upon her bones. In the research Staudacher’s dock was the key that solved the puzzle of the mystery wreck.

The local City Directory said Staudacher’s business was on the east side of “State Road.” Thus there would be no way that this could have been the same road known today as Salzburg, which in the 1890s was indeed called “State,” because that road runs east and west, and so has no “east side.” But our supposed State Road of 1867 would have had an east side. There are no maps of the streets as they were marked in 1873, but in later maps “State Road”goes right to Staudacher’s water front business locations and points almost directly to our wreck site!

Any time that the water of the Great Lakes are at normal levels, or above, the KATY REID is completely hidden from any sort of view.

You can get a copy HERE!
The complete story of the burning of the KATY REID can be found in my 2003 book "True Tales of Ghosts and Gales." Unfortunately, that book went out of print in 2012, but copies can be had on Amazon- many for a really good price. Click on the book cover here and take a look.

You can get my books signed and
 personalized  HERE