The Wreck of the Lakeland and the Birth of Mixed-Gas Diving

A piece of Lakeland's final cargo, a Nash automobile, sits upright on the lakebed off the starboard side of the shipwreck. Much of the upper body sheet metal has deteriorated away, exposing the engine.

On Dec. 1, 1924, the 280-foot steamship Lakeland took on a cargo of 1925-model automobiles in Chicago and departed in a storm for its home port of Cleveland. It was the ship's last voyage of the season. The Chicago Tribune reported that following Lakeland's departure from Chicago "some of the steel plates [of her hull] buckled," causing a leak. The ship's pumps kept up with the leak, but the captain decided to seek shelter on the evening of Dec. 2 at Sturgeon Bay, Wis., to await calmer weather. According to newspaper reports, after weighing anchor in the early morning of Dec. 3, the leak worsened. The Lakeland's pumps could no longer keep pace with the leak, and one of the holds filled rapidly. Capt. John McNeely turned about and made for shallow water.

At 10 a.m. a lookout at the Sturgeon Bay Coast Guard station observed Lakeland in apparent distress, although no actual distress signal had been given. Initial reports stated that the ship's engine could no longer provide motive power and meet the demands of its pumps when it was approximately nine miles east of the Door Peninsula (this was later corrected to less than five miles). The captain ordered the majority of the crew to escape in the ship's lifeboats, while he and four others remained aboard. Two vessels, Ann Arbor No. 6 and Cygnus, arrived on the scene shortly after the first lifeboats were deployed. A Coast Guard cutter out of Sturgeon Bay reached Lakeland at 10:55 a.m. and found one lifeboat in the water carrying Capt. McNeely and the remaining crewmembers. The other 22 crewmembers were already aboard Ann Arbor No. 6.

Lakeland sinks as Cygnus stands by. This photo was taken from the deck of
Ann Arbor No. 6 by radio operator Elliot Jacobson.
After bringing aboard the last evacuees, Capt. Robert Anderson of the Coast Guard discussed the possibility of towing the foundering vessel to shallow water with Capt. McNeely and the captain of Cygnus, who was willing to make the attempt. McNeely felt that the ship was too far gone and advised against it. Fifteen minutes later, at 11:30 a.m., Lakeland abruptly went down by the stern. The Door County Advocate and Capt. Anderson reported that the hull probably "telescoped" — broke in two. Portions of the cabins and the ship's hatches were blown 40 feet into the air by the force of air trapped in the hull as the ship went down. It was also believed that the ship's boilers exploded during her descent, further splintering the vessel. Remarkably, the radio operator aboard Ann Arbor No. 6 managed to take a series of photographs of the sinking. The Lakeland tragedy was thus one of the earliest Great Lakes losses to be photographed.

The entire crew escaped, but Lakeland took her cargo of automobiles to the bottom — a depth of more than 200 feet. A week later, attorney S.D. Foster arrived in Sturgeon Bay to investigate the incident on behalf of the insurance underwriters liable for covering the vessel's loss. Several months later the consortium of insurers decided to investigate the loss, despite the great depth at which the ship lay. Apparently Foster had collected statements from local fishermen who claimed that Lakeland had been running in circles immediately before sounding her distress whistle and sank in calm waters. These circumstances raised the insurers' suspicions.

After a local fisherman located the wreck in the summer of 1925, the insurers contracted Overseas Salvors Inc. of New York to conduct underwater operations. The company was joined by several divers who were on leave from the U.S. Navy and had been involved in research and training in deep-sea diving techniques at the Bureau of Mines Experiment Station in Pittsburgh, Pa. Navy diver Clarence L. Tibbals, who had established the Navy's diving school at Newport, R.I., led the dive team, which consisted of three Overseas Salvors employees — Harry "Big Harry" Reinhartsen, H.A. Grove and S.J. Drellishak — and two Navy personnel — G.F. Smith and Joseph Eiven. Drellishak was a former Navy diver who had been involved in the 1915 effort to salvage the Navy's F-4 submarine from the bottom of Honolulu Harbor, during which members of that dive team reached a record depth of up to 306 feet.

Tibbals' team would be the first to field-test a new mixed-gas diving system that used a helium-oxygen mixture. The possibility of using helium as a component of a breathable mixed-gas medium had been proposed as early as 1919, but no dives had yet been conducted with it. Researchers at that time believed that replacing nitrogen, a naturally occurring component of air, with helium would reduce the amount of time divers would be required to spend in decompression after deep dives. It was later discovered that helium prevented nitrogen narcosis during deep dives, but it also introduced new challenges.

Prior to the Lakeland dives, decompression tables for helium-oxygen diving had been developed by researchers working at the Bureau of Mines Pittsburgh Experiment Station through a joint program with the U.S. Navy Bureau of Construction and Repair. Decompression tables were critical because they were used to time divers' ascents from depth to prevent decompression sickness (DCS). The experimental timetable developed by the Navy and Bureau of Mines was based on lab tests using guinea pigs and had not been tested in water with humans. There are brief reports of men diving with helium-oxygen mixtures in 1924, but these were likely chamber dives.

Despite the fact that the Navy divers involved in the project were officially on leave, newspapers claimed that Navy and Bureau of Mines officials saw the Lakeland investigation as an opportunity to field-test and perhaps refine the new helium-oxygen diving techniques. The fact that the Bureau of Mines maintained near-monopoly control over the U.S. helium supply, considered a strategic resource at the time, also points to some degree of official sanction of the involvement of Navy divers in the Lakeland investigation. The helium used by the divers could have been acquired only by requesting it directly from the Bureau of Mines. Since the three Navy men had been stationed at the Bureau of Mines Pittsburgh Experiment Station, they would have had the necessary contacts to make such a request. The salvage barge Chittendon was called in to support the mission, and before leaving the Port of New York it was equipped with a diving platform, as well as a decompression chamber on loan from the Brooklyn Navy Yard. If the untested decompression tables proved inaccurate or other emergencies arose, the chamber could have been a lifesaving device.

The team was equipped with a new, high-intensity, electric underwater light developed by Westinghouse Electric Co. The 1,000-watt light allegedly lit the interior of the wreck "as bright as the average city living room … the men could even read the figures on the [wreck's] small gauges." In mid-August 1925, Chittendon arrived from New York City. It took several days to outfit it and anchor it in position at the wreck site. Over the next three weeks the dive team made multiple dives on the wreck to conduct its investigation. As the mission reached the stage of entering the broken hull of Lakeland, each descent involved two divers; the first operated as lead diver and the second as a tender. The tender remained outside the wreck and ensured the safety of the lead diver, who penetrated the interior and risked having his supply lines tangled or damaged.

Within the first week, Navy diver Eiven suffered a case of DCS and had to be placed in Chittendon's recompression chamber. By the final week of the investigation all five divers had suffered from at least one bout of DCS. Newspaper reports claimed that none of these cases were serious, but their occurrence suggests there were problems with the decompression tables developed at the Pittsburgh Experiment Station by the joint Navy-Bureau of Mines program. Despite these difficulties, the first effort to investigate a shipwreck at such a great depth was deemed a success, and the salvage crew was treated to a farewell party and dance at Sturgeon Bay's Grasshopper Pavilion. The total cost of the diving operation was estimated to be $60,000.

The consortium of insurers maintained a degree of secrecy regarding the findings until Sept. 11, 1925, when their attorney, William Day, made an official announcement. Day stated that the dive team had found evidence of "barratry" (fraud or gross negligence by a ship's master or crew at the expense of its owners or users), claiming Lakeland's crew had intentionally opened valves causing the ship to take on water and sink. Reinhartsen was the first to reach the aft seacock (a through-hull valve) that was allegedly left open. This and other evidence contradicting the initial reports of the ship's sinking was later presented in agonizing detail by the insurance companies' lawyers to support their claim that Thompson Transit Co.'s owners ordered the crew to scuttle the ship and therefore were not covered for the loss.

This photo mosaic of nearly 320 images shows the Lakeland wreck site today. The ship lies on the bottom of Lake Michigan in 200 feet of water.

Lakeland sank with at least 22 1925-model-year Nash, Kissel and Rollin automobiles, 21 of which are known to be on the wreck site today (recreational divers recovered one Rollin car in 1979). Although several vehicles are visible through hatches or cracks in the deck or exposed where overhead decks blew away during sinking, Wisconsin Historical Society archaeologists have penetrated deep inside Lakeland's hull to document each vehicle and gather evidence to list Lakeland on the National Register of Historic Places. Experts from the Wisconsin Automobile Museum, Western Reserve Historical Society and Nash Automobile Club of America identified the cars. The Kissel cars aboard Lakeland were fitted out as show cars intended for the 1925 Detroit Auto Show.

Visiting the wreck today is challenging due to its location and depth. Wisconsin dive charter operators do not run regular trips to the site, and diving it requires almost perfect conditions. After the wreck of the Lakeland gave impetus for the world's first heliox mixed-gas diving nearly a century ago, the legacy of those early divers can be traced through the developments that followed right up to the advanced recreational trimix training that is required today to visit this fascinating shipwreck.
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© Alert Diver — Q3 Summer 2016