Cornelia B Windiate Wreck

Cornelia B Windiate Wreck

Lake Huron - Courtesy of Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary

  • Type: Wooden Schooner (1874 - 1875)
  • Wreck Length: 138ft / 42m
  • Depth: 180ft / 55m

On November 27, 1875, the schooner Cornelia B. Windiate left Milwaukee with 21,000 bushels of wheat. Bound for Buffalo, New York, the 136-foot vessel was over-laden and facing the perils of a late season final run with all the ice and storms that November on the Great Lakes promised. The Windiate never reached Buffalo, and for over one hundred years was presumed to have gone down in Lake Michigan.

In 1986, divers found the Windiate sitting upright on the bottom of Lake Huron, masts still reaching up from 185 feet below the surface. The vessel, likely battered by ice storms, had traveled farther east than believed and made it through and just beyond the Straits of Mackinac. Today, the wooden schooner rests hauntingly preserved, frozen in time by cold, fresh water. The Windiate’s fate is a dramatic reminder of dangerous late season voyaging on the Great Lakes.

Wreck History

Launched in April of 1874, the Cornelia B. Windiate enjoyed a successful first season. Built to transport wheat, the “gold of the Great Lakes,” the schooner’s owners pushed for even more profits in 1875. The final weeks of the Great Lakes shipping season saw the highest profits and greatest dangers. Cargo prices—and profits—climbed with the approach of winter. But as October turned to November, high winds, cold, and ice often turned sailing from dangerous to deadly. The economic pressure to risk one last trip and boost the bottom line added to the peril.

Schooners the size of the Windiate typically carried about 16,000 bushels. Historical weather reports show that the ship encountered extreme cold and high winds as it battled toward Buffalo. The Windiate’s final moments remain a mystery. Spray from huge waves may have coated the schooner with layers of ice, adding a crushing weight to the heavily loaded ship. Handling the vessel likely became difficult and then impossible. The ship and crew vanished beneath the waves a few miles off Presque Isle, Michigan.

Diving the Wreck

Today the Windiate is in pristine condition, sitting upright in 185 feet of water. The three masts still stand with their rigging draped down through port and starboard deadeyes to an intact deck below. Thousands of bushels of wheat lie protected in sealed cargo holds, unusual for a sunken ship. A winding staircase, a stool, and a table are visible through the intact deck cabin windows; tangible artifacts that hint at life onboard a nineteenth-century canal schooner. The crew’s lifeboat, or yawl boat, rests silently alongside the starboard stern quarter.

The Windiate survives as a memorial to the crew and to the countless ships lost risking a November voyage on the Great Lakes. Deep water helps to protect the site from ice and storms, but challenges remain. Facing new perils from non-native mussels and increasing human activity, preserving the Windiate for the future will take the combined work of archaeologists, scientists, and divers.

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