WRECK: CORNELIA B WINDIATE
N45° 19.552 W83° 19.599
MAX DEPTH: 180ft / 55m
LENGTH: 138ft / 42m
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.
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.
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.
Left: Still attached to the foremast nearly 80 feet above the Windiate’s deck is the yardarm that supported the vessel’s triangular “raffe” topsail.
Right, a typical Great Lake schooner with raffe sails unfurled. (credit: Thunder Bay Sanctuary Research Collection)
Gathered at the base of the Windiate’s mainmast are several mast hoops that were once attached to the mainsail, allowing it to ride easily up and down the mast. Just forward of the mast is the winch used to raise and lower the vessel’s huge centerboard. Due to their flat bottoms, the wind that drove Great Lakes schooners forward also pushed them sideways, making it difficult to keep on course. Housed in a watertight box, called the centerboard trunk, the centerboard hung deep into the water and slowed the sideways movement.
A schooner’s capstan made easier work of raising heavy sails or anchors, an important consideration when the profit margin demanded sailing with as few crew as possible. Here you can see one of several holes that would have received a “capstan bar.” Each sailor would insert a bar and then push against it while walking around and thus rotating the capstan.
Well preserved by Lake Huron’s cold, fresh water, much of the Windiate’s fine detail is still intact. Taken in 2003, this photo captures several interesting features. Round wooden “dead eyes” are still attached to the iron “chainplates” that secured them to the hull and supported the vessel’s standing rigging. Note also the paint, sliding window shutter, hand rail, and decorative molding on the cabin side. Today, as seen in this 2005 photo, some of this detail is obscured by invasive quagga mussels that cover much of the wreck.
(photo credit: Rod Maxon, 2003 and NOAA Thunder Bay NMS, 2005)
Probably dislodged during an illegal salvage attempt, the Windiate’s iconic wheel is a reminder of how vulnerable and fragile Great Lakes shipwrecks are. To safeguard the recreational, archeological and historical value of historic shipwrecks, Michigan state law prohibits altering the wreck or removing artifacts. Shipwrecks within the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary are also protected by federal regulations.
Graceful and functional curved stairs lead from the Windiate’s aft deck to the cabin below.
Resting silently alongside the wreck, the presence of the Windiate’s yawl boat begs many questions. Did the crew get into the yawl boat only to capsize alongside the vessel? Or did the yawl boat remain unused and in the stern davits only to swing alongside as the vessel sank?
Used to keep food fresh, the Windiate’s icebox remains intact and on deck.Used to keep food fresh, the Windiate’s icebox remains intact and on deck.
Missing only its two handles, the Windiate’s bilge pump is a dramatic reminder of the perils of voyaging on the Great Lakes. The bilge is the lowest point in the ship, where water naturally collects. During storms, or on old leaky schooners, crews would pump around the clock as they struggled to get the water out faster than it came in. The pump on deck lifted the water to deck level where it spilled overboard. This simple hand pump was essential equipment that saved many lives.
This 2003 image captured by the Institute for Exploration’s remotely operated vehicle Little Hercules, reveals the Cornelia B. Windiate’s amazing state of preservation.