Anyone with even passing knowledge of the Great Lakes knows that there are secrets beneath those waves: ships that have foundered.
Many have been found, and their locations are well known, but there are still mysteries to be unlocked.
One of the biggest dates back to a night in September 1929. The ship Andaste was headed from Grand Haven to Chicago when it vanished in a sudden storm on Lake Michigan.
No one knew it was missing until bodies began washing up on the beaches in Holland.
Now, we may be a big step closer to discovering where the Andaste went down.
Valerie van Heest is a shipwreck historian and author with the Michigan Shipwreck Research Association.
She tells us the Andaste was “an unusual ship,” designed with rounded sides that the builder thought would help it cut through the waters more efficiently. Unfortunately, that design choice may have contributed to the ship’s loss.
“Years into its life, it was converted to a self-unloading barge, a barge that could carry stone and gravel and have a conveyor belt on its deck that could unload its cargo,” van Heest says.
But while that extra equipment saved time and manpower, she tells us the extra weight, combined with the ship’s rounded sides, also made the vessel prone to rolling.
According to van Heest, other ships out on the lake the night the Andaste disappeared “reported waves like they’d never seen before.”
“So certainly we know the storm was the major contributing factor of this accident, but where did it occur? You know, what did the men go through that night? Was it quick? Was it slow? We want to know. These are the kind of mysteries that increase our desire to find the wreck,” she says.
MSRA has launched four expeditions to discover the Andaste’s final resting place, but without eyewitness accounts of the sinking, that task has proven difficult.
“We’ve searched now with the best, most modern side scan sonar equipment, but we aren’t sure where it is,” van Heest says. “It could be literally anywhere between Grand Haven and Chicago, its destination.”
But MSRA recently got its hands on a piece of evidence that could give it a serious leg up in the search for the Andaste.
Van Heest tells us they knew from newspaper accounts that an inquest was held after the ship disappeared, and that 33 people testified as to the conditions of the ship, the storm that night, and inspections that had been performed. One of those people was another ship captain who had seen the Andaste that night.
“But,” she says, “searching high and low for years, I couldn’t get my hands on a copy of that transcript.”
That is, until now.
Van Heest tells us that someone who knew of MSRA’s interest in the ship discovered a box of historical photographs in his basement, and "underneath those photographs was a 300-page transcript of the inquest,” she says.
“We’ve never had such specific information before on this ship.”
She says the document included testimony from the captain and the first mate of the steamship Alabama, and that they actually saw the Andaste struggling in the storm.
Based on the information in the document, van Heest estimates that the Andaste is resting somewhere between 35 and 40 miles offshore, under 400 to 450 feet of water.
“It’s deeper than we’ve ever searched, and if we discover it it will be probably the deepest wreck anyone’s ever yet found in Lake Michigan,” she says. “So we’ve got a real challenge on our hands.”
MSRA is seeking the public’s help to accomplish its goal. It will be putting on a film festival in Holland on Saturday, March 26. Attendees can learn about the Andaste as well some of MSRA’s past discoveries.
“It’s our only fundraising activity of the entire year, and we get by on very little. So if people come to the show, they’ll have a great time, they’ll learn about the hunt for the Andaste, and their $12.50 ticket will help us fund this search and solve this mystery,” van Heest says.
The 18th Annual “Mysteries & Histories: Beneath the Inland Seas” will be at the Knickerbock Theatre in downtown Holland at 7 p.m. on March 26.