The Wells Burt, built by the Detroit Dry Dock Co., was launched in 1873 as a bulk carrier. She was 201 feet in length with a beam of 33-1/2 feet. Her hold was over 14 feet in depth and could carry approximately 50,000 bushels of corn.
Sadly, she served only ten years on the Great Lakes. On May 21, 1883, enroute from Buffalo to Chicago with a load of coal, she encountered a furious storm. Residents of Chicago reported waves thrashing against the lakefront, spraying upward over one hundred feet. The storm was too much; her steering gear disabled, she broached to and her mizzen mast ripped loose. She swamped and sank. All eleven crew members perished.
The Wells Burt came to rest three miles off Evanston, Illinois, in forty feet of water with her masts still visible above the surface. Commercial divers hired by the ship's owner dove the wreck to assess the damage and recover the anchors and masts. Salvaging the ship was determined to be impossible as she had already settled into the soft clay bottom. Having no remaining commercial value, the wreck site was soon forgotten.
Over one hundred years after sinking, in the autumn of 1988, professional divers notified the Underwater Archaeological Society that they had discovered the Wells Burt. This wreck is somewhat unique to Chicago shipwrecks, as she is almost completely intact. In 1989, UASC undertook an extensive survey of the wreck, to share this find with the diving public and attempt to keep the wreck preserved for future generations to enjoy and study. Products of the UASC's survey include a video tape, database and slides of remaining artifacts, and a site guide.
Unfortunately, between the autumn of 1990 and spring of 1991 the wreck was vandalized. A diver or divers removed ten deadeyes and several loose artifacts. Adding insult to injury, one of the four interpretive plaques was removed from the hull of the ship. The State of Illinois Historic Preservation Agency responded by offering a $2000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the felons. In addition, they directed the UASC to remove the remaining loose artifacts for security and conservation.
As She Rests Today
Regardless of the theft, The Wells Burt has remained mostly intact. Her bow lies northwest and she rests on her port bilge at approximately thirty degrees. She has settled into the bottom about eight feet. Two-thirds of her decking remains in place, and her hold is easily accessible through the hatches. Deck equipment, including capstan, windlass and chain brakes, have withstood the test of time.
The Underwater Archaelogical Society of Chicago encourages all divers to visit this shipwreck.
Remember! Illinois law prohibits the removal of anything from this or any other historic wreck. Please help preserve our maritime heritage!
Sponsored jointly by Underwater Safaris, Chicago and UASC