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Great Lakes divers comb depths, find shipwreck of John V. Moran lost in 1899

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Author Topic: Great Lakes divers comb depths, find shipwreck of John V. Moran lost in 1899  (Read 108 times)
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« on: July 26, 2015, 09:46:16 pm »

Great Lakes divers comb depths, find pristine shipwreck of John V. Moran lost in 1899
Garret Ellison | By Garret Ellison |
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on July 23, 2015 at 12:33 AM, updated July 23, 2015 at 12:50 AM

LAKE MICHIGAN It was 3:30 a.m., and Jeff Voss was tired.

Voss, a tool and die shop owner when he's not diving on shipwrecks, had been at the wheel since midnight, kept awake by Red Bull and the monotonous duty of keeping the boat on course while simultaneously monitoring the sonar.

Somewhere below, a phantom lay waiting. Voss and his fellow wreck sleuths had been patiently combing a 10-square-mile grid of Lake Michigan off Muskegon for the past three days in a modified 25-foot Bayliner; "mowing the lawn" with side-scan sonar in search of a lost propeller steamer that had slipped gently below the icy lake surface more than 116 years ago.

Voss was about to wake fellow searchers Jack van Heest and David Trotter to hand off the boring job when the sonar picked up a structure.

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ROV video of the John V. Moran shipwreck Michigan Shipwreck Research Association co-directors Valerie van Heest and Craig Rich narrate an ROV video of the John V. Moran shipwreck, discovered at 365 feet in Lake Michigan off Muskegon on June 5, 2015.

"All of a sudden boom. There it was," Voss said. "The bottom out there is flat, and then this big image shows up on the print out."

Excited, Voss yelled for the others to wake up and record the GPS coordinates of the discovery. Trotter, a 40-year veteran of Great Lakes shipwreck hunting, rubbed the sleep from his eyes as he looked at the sonar image.

"Yep," he said. "That's it for sure."

It was June 5, 2015, and the grave of the John V. Moran was a mystery no more.

'Not a railing is missing'

Although Trotter was sure the big target on sonar was the Moran, the rest of the Michigan Shipwreck Research Association (MSRA) team wanted to be absolutely certain before ringing the dinner bell on the discovery announcement.

The Holland-based wreck hunting team had watched with dismay as a pair of treasure hunters from Muskegon had chummed the waters earlier this year with an announcement of a discovery they thought was the "Holy Grail" of Great Lakes wrecks explorer Robert de La Salle's Le Griffon but which turned out to be a 19th century tugboat with boilers and steel riveting.

Diving on the Moran was the only way to know for sure. Unfortunately, the wreck is under 365 feet of lake water as deep as the deepest wreck ever dived in Lake Michigan, the Carl D. Bradley, which rests about 380 feet down 12 miles southwest of Gull Island. Diving such wrecks requires significant technical skill and hours of decompression on the ascent.

Valerie van Heest and Craig Rich, MSRA co-directors, felt any scuba dives should wait for warmer water in August or September. In the meantime, they turned to the Michigan State Police Underwater Recovery Unit, which owns a remotely operated submersible that can operate at depths for hours. A scuba diver would be limited to 15 to 18 minutes on the Moran.

The state agreed to join the dive, which took place July 8.

"This was a good training dive for them because it was so deep," said van Heest, a Holland graphic designer, author and local historian.

When the ROV reached the wreck, its cameras showed a ship sitting upright on the bottom, entirely intact, looking for all the world as if it still were moored at the dock.

It's unequivocally one of the best-preserved wrecks in the Great Lakes, she said.

"Not a railing is missing," said Rich, a master diver and former Holland City Council member. "The mast is standing. The lights are standing. The anchors are in position. There's even glass still in the windows."

"The only thing missing from this wreck is the smokestack."

The last voyage of the J.V. Moran

Prior to July 8, the last time anyone saw the Moran was Sunday, Feb. 12, 1899.
"Not a railing is missing. The mast is standing. There's even glass still in the windows" - Craig Rich

The 214-foot steamer, built in 1888 in Bay City, was only 11 years old when it took its final voyage a routine, Muskegon-bound dash across an ice-covered lake that left Milwaukee at noon Feb. 9 carrying a cargo of flour, animal feed, peas, oil cake and miscellaneous freight.
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« Reply #1 on: July 26, 2015, 09:46:52 pm »

Undated photo of the John V. Moran.Courtesy | MSRA

The Crosby Transportation Co. had owned the ship for less than a year. The $50,000 cargo was the largest the Moran had yet carried. The flour on board, 9,550 barrels of it, was of a select brand destined for Amsterdam.
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« Reply #2 on: July 26, 2015, 09:47:09 pm »

At some point in the voyage, ice punched a hole in the hull and the ship began to flood. As water began to overwhelm the pumps, Capt. John McLeod, fearing a boiler explosion, ordered the crew of 24 into the lifeboats.

Thankfully for the crew, the Moran had been paced across the lake by her sister steamer Naomi, which heard the distress whistle. The ship pulled alongside about 12:30 a.m. Friday, Feb. 10, and took the stricken vessel's crew aboard in -30 degree weather.

The Naomi tried for several hours to tow the ship, which was sinking by the stern. When that proved to be futile, everything of value was stripped, the cargo was transferred or thrown overboard and the Moran was abandoned to her fate.

Because the sinking occurred along a heavily trafficked route, several other ships passed by the Moran as it slowly settled into the water. The last confirmed sighting happened a couple of days later, on Sunday afternoon, when a passing railcar ferry reported the ship still afloat.

The ship's owners tried to mount a rescue mission, but an equipment failure on the dock in Milwaukee delayed the expedition.

Cold and alone, the Moran slid under the ice, not to be seen for more than a century.

Connecting the dots

When ships sink from a gash or immediate hull breach, wreck hunters typically find the vessel's upper decks missing — usually blown apart from the force of internal air pressure escaping the incoming rush of water.

Such is the case with the Moran's identical sister ship, the Eber Ward, which rests in the Straits of Mackinac. It sank there 10 years after the Moran went down.

The Moran, however, is remarkably intact.

"The fact that we're seeing this in such perfect condition confirms a slow sinking," which is a very rare occurrence," van Heest said.

The MSRA team has found numerous wrecks and partnered on the discovery of others since inception in 2001. The group has a "hit list" of undiscovered Lake Michigan wrecks that include the Andaste, a steamer lost in 1929, and the Chicora, a steamer lost in 1895. Both sunk with all hands during a storm.

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Because there were no casualties on the Moran, the wreck's location was better known. However, that's no guarantee of discovery. Tiny variations in the historical account can have a major impact on a potential search grid.
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« Reply #3 on: July 26, 2015, 09:47:33 pm »

Side scan sonar image of the John V. MoranCourtesy | MSRA

In the Moran's case, there was debate about whether the ship was closer to Grand Haven or Muskegon. Van Heest said the group recently found primary documents during their research that helped winnow a manageable search grid.
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« Reply #4 on: July 26, 2015, 09:47:54 pm »

"You're connecting the dots," she said. "You're thinking outside the box, trying to hone in on primary sources — never what someone else has written in books. You go to old newspapers, court documents, company records, enrollment papers."

The group is holding onto the ship's location for the moment. Dives are planned to answer further archeological questions and determine where, exactly, water initially breached the hull. The team also hopes to explore the ship's interior.

The discovery and documentation efforts on the John V. Moran, as well as other local shipwrecks, was put on display Wednesday in the exhibit "Mysteries Beneath the Waves" at the Michigan Maritime Museum in South Haven.

Shipwrecks such as the Moran, lost on the same Michigan-to-Wisconsin route the Lake Express ferry runs today, "help connect us with our past."

"That's one of the most extraordinary things about a discovery," van Heest said.

Garret Ellison covers business, government and environment for MLive/The Grand Rapids Press. Email him at or follow on Twitter & Instagram
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« Reply #5 on: July 26, 2015, 09:48:04 pm »
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