November is a bad month to be traveling by ship anywhere on the Great Lakes. Storms can arise, seemingly out of nowhere, and the bottom of the lakes are strewn with ships that thought they could beat the storm or waited too long to seek the safety of a nearby harbor. Probably the most famous shipwreck was the 729 foot iron ore freighter SS Edmund Fitzgerald, which fell victim to an early November storm in 1975.
November is peak storm season on the Great Lakes, called the Witch of November by some and the Gales of November in the immortal song about the Edmund Fitzgerald popularized by Gordon Lightfoot. November storms in the upper Great Lakes are known for both their sheer bone-chilling ferocity and the sudden nature of the onslaught. Weather scientists call the phenomenon a mid-latitude cyclone and storms can pack winds in excess of eighty miles per hour and, in the shallow basin of the Great Lakes, generate twenty-five to thirty foot waves. With water temperatures just above freezing, anyone finding themselves adrift in those tempestuous, dark waters has a lifespan measured in minutes.
Almost forgotten to history was another November sinking of a side-wheel steamer called The Keystone State, which set sail on Friday, November the 8th in 1861, for a journey from Detroit to Milwaukee. At the time of her sailing the Civil War was just seven months old. America was at war and ports were prime hunting grounds for spies on both sides of the conflict. The ship’s manifest said farm machinery but later rumors would suggest she was actually loaded with Civil War gold.
The Keystone State was a 288 foot dual side-wheel steamer, considered luxurious by the standards of the day, and she was the second-largest ship on the lakes in those days. Normally she ran passengers and cargo on a safe and predictable route between Detroit and Buffalo, N.Y. But on November the 8th in 1861 she was chartered for a special run of “iron implements” and “farm machinery” to Milwaukee. The obvious question is what was the rush to get farm machinery to Milwaukee in the winter in the middle of a war?
Nevertheless, she set sail with her cargo of “farm machinery” in the midst of a November storm. The ship’s course called for the steamer to stick close to the leeward side of Michigan, which would have sheltered the ship and her thirty-three crew members from the worst of the storm. But, somewhere north of Thunder Bay, something went wrong and the ship lost steerage. Vicious, unrelenting winds drove the ship further from shore and huge waves battered her, tearing off piece after piece until she staggered and sank in 175 feet of water 180 miles north of Detroit, taking her crew and mysterious cargo down with her. The ship was so far off course searchers had all but given up hope of ever finding her.
News traveled slower in those days and it wasn’t until later in the month that the first newspaper accounts of the ship’s disappearance started to surface. It was years before speculation arose that the ship’s cargo was not farm machinery but war materials, including a haul of Civil War gold.
The Keystone State’s location remained a secret for 152 years until 72 year-old shipwreck hunter David Trotter and a survey crew found the ship on side-scan radar far from where she was supposed to have been. Initial dives in 2013 to survey the wreck found her cargo holds completely empty. If the ship was in peril the crew would have put the cargo overboard in an effort to save the ship. Searchers also discovered a long debris field, which could have been created if she rolled over far enough to dump her cargo.
There is so much that’s peculiar about the story surrounding the sinking of the Keystone State that it’s hard to know where to start. It’s difficult to imagine the wartime imperative to take a badly-needed transportation resource offline to run farm machinery to Milwaukee—in the middle of winter. Yet, if the cargo was gold, that’s exactly the type of cover story the North would have concocted to hide the ship’s true mission. Port cities in the North and South were hives of spies and saboteurs. So it’s conceivable a Confederate spy found the farm machinery story equally suspicious and sabotaged the ship before she left port. Another possibility is that a cargo hold full of gold might tempt people do strange things. To deepen the mystery, the U.S. Navy leased another side-wheel steamer of similar length in 1861 and gave it the name Keystone State.
We may never know what happened that fateful night the Keystone State went down. What’s certain is there’s a trail of her cargo on the bottom of Lake Huron in an area north of Detroit and west of Thunder Bay. We can all be fairly certain that, whatever is entombed down there in those icy waters, it’s probably not farm equipment.
Will Granderson is a regular columnist for Goldco Precious Metals writing on finance, precious metals, and gold as an investment and in popular culture.