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The Wreck of the B West Identified

NMC Scientists lead the way for freshwater research.

The unknown shipwreck discovered by Northwestern Michigan College’s water studies bathymetric survey team has been identified as the B West.

A team of operational divers from NMC’S Nautical Archaeology program inspected the site shortly after its discovery in late July and were able to positively identify the vessel from the name plate on the bow.

The B West was a 122 Ton self-propelled lumber barge that was built in Buffalo, NY in 1905. It sank off Northport on December 16, 1957 when it’s bilge pump failed. The barge had been carrying a cargo of lumber from North Manitou Island to Leland when it began taking on water during a violent storm. The coast guard was called in and evacuated the two crew members and took the vessel in tow. Shorty thereafter it sank under twenty foot waves. Newspaper accounts state that the owner, Perry Hammond, planed to salvage the barge in the spring of 1958 but apparently the location of the wreck was not found until NMC students discovered it this July.

The discovery of the wreck was fortuitous in that it coincided with the end of the Nautical Archaeology Society 2011 International Field School. The discovery of the B West provided the team of twenty nautical archaeologists from across the globe the opportunity to apply their newly honed archaeology skills. Program director Dr. Mark Holley states, “the timing here could not have been better. The NAS field school had brought together an international group of trained archaeologists from all across the United States and 4 different countries. We had the right people at the right place at the right time and were able to complete the research with unusual speed and expertise.”

"Once again, this discovery and identification process demonstrates the unique set of institutional and human resources only available at NMC,” said Hans Van Sumeren, director of NMC’s Water Studies Institute. NMC offers the only associate's degree in freshwater studies in the United States.

One of the advanced field school instructors, Brian Abbott of Nautilus Marine Group, was able to deploy a Kongsberg MS1000 sector scan sonar unit on the wreck and produced some astounding sonar imagery of the deck and mechanical equipment on the bow of the barge. “One of the unique advantages of our program at NMC is our ability to access advanced technologies to document archaeological sites with unprecedented speed and accuracy. The application of sector scan sonar to archaeological sites was first pioneered in Grand Traverse Bay by Holley and Abbott in 2007 and has been used by them to document underwater archaeological sites in Scotland, Ireland, Greece, and Sweden.

The B West lies in 100 feet of water at the mouth of the Grand Traverse between the Leelanau Peninsula and Charlevoix. The barge measures 100 foot in length by 24 foot in breadth and sits upwrite on the lake bed with no apparent damage as if it were still underway to Northport. Dr. Holley describes the B West as, “the prettiest wreck that I have ever seen.“ The metal hull and deck is intact and mechanical equipment is present on the stern deck. Two large outboard engines complete with props extend off the stern. The name B West is clearly visible painted in white block letters on the bow. Although the cargo of lumber is known to have floated off the deck during the storm that sank the ship, the apparently empty hold appears to be fully intact and undisturbed.

It is believed that the NMC field school team was the first group of divers to visit the wreck since it sank. Holley states “it is extremely rare to find an untouched wreck so the students were very excited to document the site.” Due to the depth and cold bottom conditions only divers with advanced diving qualifications inspected the site. One of the field school graduates, technical diver, David Selmo of New Orleans, LA stated, “I have been around the world and done some cool stuff in my life but being the first to dive this wreck is up there with the top.” Dr. Holley jokes, “we have yet to find a treasure ship filled with gold but the B West is just as valuable to nautical archaeologists and historians, as it is a magnificently preserved example of the types of cargo barges that were the backbone of commerce in this part of the Great Lakes in the first half of the last century.”

Plans are currently being drawn up to more fully document the wreck in the spring.