Editor’s Note: On April 20, 2010, an explosion on an oil rig 50 miles off the Louisiana coast left 11 workers missing and presumed dead. Efforts are now focused on the underwater challenge of trying to cap off the oil well on the sea bed. Local history columnist Laura Bien takes a look back 150 years into the past to recall a Lake Erie underwater challenge resulting from a different tragedy.
In the summer of 1852, $36,000 in cash and gold bars lay in a locked safe 165 feet deep on the floor of Lake Erie.
Worth $920,000 today, the riches lay within the wreck of the steamship Atlantic. So did more grisly testimony of the shipwreck’s victims, estimated as ranging from 130 to over 250. The deaths represented about a third of the 576 travelers packed onto a steamship meant to accommodate far fewer.
The era’s stream of immigrants pouring west made a profitable trade for passenger steamers traveling the Great Lakes. The Atlantic was the fastest one of all, speeding to Detroit from Buffalo in just 16-and-a-half hours. A towering steam engine churned huge paddlewheels on either side of the vessel. Despite her power and 267-foot-long brawn, the Atlantic succumbed when she was struck on the night of Aug. 20, 1852, by the Ogdensburg, a ship from a rival ferry line.
In the chaos and panic that ensued as the Atlantic began sinking, several of the lifeboats swamped when they hit the water. Some passengers grabbed cushions or anything buoyant and jumped in the water. The Ogdensburg circled back and picked up about 250 survivors from the water.
Immigrants among the rescued traveled on into the new world with no possessions, and some, according to survivor Amund Eidsmoe, one of the 132 Norwegians on board, went in a half-naked state to Milwaukee. In that city, a collection was taken up for their benefit. Eisdsmoe received $30 and a suit of clothes.
Another of the surviving Atlantic passengers wrote a letter home to Norway that included a newspaper account presenting the incident as sabotage by the Atlantic’s captain. The heads of the two steamship companies went to court in a case that ultimately was decided by the Supreme Court, which ruled that both vessels had been at fault.
The gold remained at the bottom of Lake Erie. Several divers tried, and failed, to get it. The treasure lay deeper than it was thought anyone could dive.
Elliott Harrington tried in 1856.
Born in Westfield, N.Y., just a few miles from Lake Erie, Harrington had previous experience in Michigan – attempting to recover the body of a farmer from an inland lake. In 1855, Scio Township sheep farmer William Briggs drowned while washing his sheep in a small lake near his property.
“All efforts to recover the body being fruitless,” reported an early June edition of the Ypsilanti Sentinel, “Messrs. Harrington and Philips were sent for to search with their submarine armor.”
Harrington’s partner, Lodner Philips, was a Michigan City, Ind. shoemaker who invented and built submarines – one 85 feet long – in his spare time.
The paper continued, “[T]hey made numerous descents, at various depths, discovering most singular irregularities of bottom, and curious formations. In some places the plummet will strike bottom in a short distance. A few feet off, down it goes to an almost unfathomable depth. Sometimes upon arriving at what seemed to be the bottom, the diver’s feet rest upon nothing, and down he goes into impenetrable darkness and a soft mass of mingled water and sediment, until prudence warns him against further progress.”
Harrington’s efforts were not successful – the body was never found. Still, a gravestone for William Briggs stands in Ann Arbor’s Forest Hill Cemetery.
A one-time lake adjoining Briggs’ former property in section 34 of Scio Township is no more, except for several tiny ponds. Houses and a subdivision occupy the site, at the southeast corner of West Liberty and Zeeb roads.
A year after the Briggs search, Harrington dove for the Lake Erie treasure from the Atlantic.
Philips had already tried, and failed, with another submarine of his that he called the Marine Cigar. It was nicknamed the “Fool Killer.” On an unmanned test dive to the shipwreck, the sub was lost. It rests today with the Atlantic in Lake Erie.
The sub was one of the sights Harrington saw on his own attempt. Others were described in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper of July 12, 1856.
“A submarine diver from Buffalo has at last succeeded in raising the safe of the American Express Company, which was lost when the steamer Atlantic was sunk off Long Point, in 1852 … The diver was protected by copper armor, and was under water forty minutes, during which time he had some strange adventures.”
The paper continued, “When the diver alighted upon the deck, he was saluted by a beautiful lady, whose clothing was well arranged, and her hair elegantly dressed. As he approached her, the motion of the water caused an oscillation of the head, as if gracefully bowing to him. She was standing erect, with one hand grasping the rigging.
“Around lay the bodies of several others as if sleeping. Children holding their friends by their hands, and mothers with their babies in their arms were there.”
Harrington found the safe in the ship’s office, maneuvered it to the deck, and attached chains. He and the safe rose to the surface.
The safe contained five thousand dollars in gold and $31,000 in cash. Harrington ultimately lost all but a fraction of the money in court.
Perhaps out of pique, Harrington then moved to Iowa with his wife Emaline and his children William, Forest, and Allie. The 1860 census lists him as a carriage maker in St. Charles Township in Floyd County, Iowa.
He served with the Union Navy during the Civil War. Harrington allegedly had a Confederate price on his head ranging, various sources say, from $5,000 to $8,000 because he discovered the gap in the Union naval blockade around Charleston where Confederate blockade runners were slipping through.
He survived the war and moved back to the Great Lakes area, settling in Ypsilanti. He resumed his profession of submarine diving. The family lived in one of the nicer homes on Prospect Street near Prospect Park. Later it appears that he moved to Detroit and that Emaline died there.
Harrington’s father had died in 1872, and his mother in 1878. They are buried in the Volusia cemetery near Westfield in New York. After a lifetime of excitement and adventure (except maybe for Iowa), Harrington ultimately returned home. He died there on his birthday – April 19, 1879.
This biweekly column features a Mystery Artifact contest. You are invited to take a look at the artifact and try to deduce its function.
Last week Lisa Bashert correctly guessed that the M.A. in question was a child’s bicycle seat. The lack of context made the item somewhat tough to figure out.
To compensate for that, this week’s Mystery Artifact is a bit easier. Made of paper, this 6-inch-long item has a movable fan of tags on top. How was it used? Take your best guess and good luck!
Laura Bien is the author of “Tales of the Ypsilanti Archives,” available on Amazon and at local stores. Contact her at email@example.com.