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IBEW Members Discover Historic Shipwreck in Great Lakes

Published Thursday, December 26, 2019
by IBEW News
IBEW Members Discover Historic Shipwreck in Great Lakes

(BOYNE CITY, MICHIGAN) - When Bernie Hellstrom picked up an obstruction on his boat's sounder, he knew something big was there, but he had no idea how historic it was - or that he would discover it with an International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Brother. 

"I was just thinking, 'Let's see what's here,'" Hellstrom said. "I had ‘no idea at the time of the historical significance.’"

What Hellstrom found was the crash site of two Civil War-era ships previously thought to have sunk in another part of the Great Lakes.

Hellstrom, a Traverse City, Michigan Local 498 Retired Journeyman Wireman, has long been a fan of the lakes and even considered becoming a Commercial Diver as a young man.

"I was ‘always’ in the water.  I was ‘diving before I was driving,’" said Hellstrom, who was born in the Detroit area but moved to the west side of the state as soon as he could to better enjoy the lakes.  His current hometown, Boyne City, is in the northwest corner of Michigan's Lower Peninsula and gives him easy access to Lake Michigan.

A long-time shipwreck and Great Lakes enthusiast, Hellstrom has been monitoring the waters of Lake Michigan for years.

In 1995 he was in charge of operations on a dive to the Carl D. Bradley, a ship that sank in 1958 some 380 feet below the surface.

Part of that expedition was made possible by Hellstrom's homemade underwater camera, which Popular Science described as "ingenious."

As Hellstrom noted, back in the '90s there were very few underwater cameras available to people outside of universities or other specialized places, but with his IBEW training, he was able to make one from salvaged home security system parts and house it in a pressure-resistant watertight case.

"They were ‘amazed at what could be done with low-cost’ equipment," Hellstrom said.

That camera, which can reach a depth of 1,000 feet, has served him well as he checks off potential Great Lakes shipwrecks from his bucket list.

The largest group of freshwater lakes in the world by total area, the Great Lakes have a history of marine transportation dating back to the 17th century, though traversing the waters has never been easy.

Roughly 6,000 ships have sunk over the years, though one historian puts the figure as high as 25,000.

Nearly 30,000 people have died in those shipwrecks, according to the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum.

"Having the ‘sea-like’ features such as ‘rolling’ waves, ‘strong’ currents ‘and great depths,’ these water bodies, also known as ‘inland seas,’ offer a ‘difficult time’ for sailors when traversing through the region," wrote Marine Insight.

So it wasn't uncommon for the trading vessels the Peshtigo and the St. Andrews to collide when they did on a dark and hazy night on June 25th, 1878.

Built in 1863 and weighing 384 tons, the Peshtigo was considered a giant ship at the time, with three masts and a length of 161 feet.

The St. Andrews, built in 1857, was almost as long at 143 feet long with a weight of 426 tons.

The St. Andrews was bound from Chicago to Buffalo, New York with a cargo of corn, while the Peshtigo was bound from Erie, Pennsylvania to Chicago with coal, which is now strewn along the bottom of the lake.

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