The Maritime History of the Great Lakes
David Dows (Schooner), sunk, 29 Nov 1889

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The big five masted DAVID DOWS foundered 10 miles from Chicago Friday in 42 feet of water. The crew escaped.
      Port Huron Daily Times
      Saturday, November 30, 1889

The DAVID DOWS rolled over on her side and went to the bottom head first about 15 miles southeast of Chicago harbor at 2:45 Friday. The crew were rescued after suffering intensely from 8 o'clock Wednesday night. The tugs T.T. MORFORD and CHICAGO rescued the crew.
      Port Huron Daily Times
      Monday, December 2, 1889

      The schooner DAVID DOWS, sunk in Lake Michigan, is a total loss. She has broken in two.
      Buffalo Evening News
      June 12, 1890
      The United States Lake Survey steamer SEARCH has discovered a wreck lying 6-3/8 miles from the South Chicago breakwater lighthouse, and eight miles from the furnace stack of the Inland Steel Company at Indiana Harbor. As the wreck is directly in the path of the heavy traffic for Chicago, Indiana Harbor and Gary, it is a dangerous menace. At standard low water there is about 18-1/2 feet over the wreck. It is believed to be the hull of the five masted schooner DAVID DOWS.
      Buffalo Evening News
      August 7, 1908
      The United States Lake Survey steamer SEARCH has found a clear depth of only 22 feet at the present high stage of Lake Michigan over the wreck of the car ferry No. 2, sunk in June 1907, about 3-1/8 miles from Calumet Harbor Lighthouse. the wreck has been marked with spar buoys flying white flags with red centers. The wreck of the schooner DAVID DOWS, lying easterly about 3-1/3 miles, has been marked by similar buoys
      Buffalo Evening News
      August 14, 1908
      The U. S. Lake Survey has received a report from Maj. Thomas H. Rees, U. S. Engineer in charge of the Chicago District that remnants of car-ferry barge No. 2 have been removed , and the wreck of the schooner DAVID DOWS has been partly removed. The car ferry barge was sunk in June 1907, and was partly removed by the government in July and August of the same year. The sweeping operations of the Lake Survey steamer SEARCH in August 1908, disclosed that this wreck was then still a menace to navigation.
      Buffalo Evening News
      November 7, 1908
      . . . . .
      by Teddy Remick
      Almost three-quarters of a century has gone by since the schooner DAVID DOWS sank to the floor of Lake Michigan near Chicago. The exact date was November 29, 1889, Thanksgiving Day. Some records describe her as a barquentine, while others list her as a
schooner. Aside from this, she was however, the only five masted vessel to ever sail the Great Lakes. And today, items from this particular wreck are in great demand by collectors of marine relies. We have received many such letters from collectors, asking if we knew where any items from the DAVID DOWS could be obtained. Our stock answer has been to send the writer the bearings of this wreck and tell him to take what he wanted! Whether any of these people ever followed through on this, we do not know, as none ever wrote back.
It would make good business sense, if some enterprising diver, would locate the wreck and strip it of all removable items, and sell them to collectors. True, it is not as glamorous as hunting sunken treasure, though money is money, whether it is recovered treasure or money earned from the sale of recovered marine items and relics, and I doubt if anyone will argue.
To the many readers who will no doubt be interested in diving to this wreck, the following is a short history of the vessel, statistics, plus bearings.
DAVID DOWS - official number 157029 - gross 1,418.63 - net 1,347.70 - length 265' 4" - beam 37' 6" - depth 18' 1". The vessel was built in the year 1881 at Toledo, Ohio, by the Bailey Brothers for M. D. Carringron of Toledo. (At the time of her sinking she was owned by John Corrigan of Cleveland, Ohio).
Being pretty hard to handle with all the canvas she carried and after figuring in at least one serious accident, she was converted to a barge in 1888. At the time of her sinking, she was carrying a full cargo of hard coal, and being towed by the steamer AURORA. In my research of this vessel I have come across one report that claims she was carrying steel bars which were later salvaged.
A now defunct wrecking company worked on the hulk all winter and finally gave up the job April 7, 1890, the vessel's back was broken.
The official records on this wreck carry two locations as to her resting place. I believe the answer to this is, that there are two different wrecks, though one of them is the DAVID DOWS.
I am including both locations in this article, perhaps the diver or divers, that locate both of these wrecks, will be kind eonugh to inform me as to what the name of the other wreck is?
This first bearing in my opinion, after a search of old records, is the wreck of the DAVID Dows, lying in 42 feet of water, 6-3/8 miles N. 70 degrees 30' E. from Calumet Harbor Light-House, and 8 miles N. 21 degrees 45' from the furnace stack of the Inland Steel Company of Indiana Harbor.
      What this second wreck is, is anyone's guess, but the bearings on it are as follows. twenty-two feet of clearance over this wreck, 6-3/8 miles ENE 1/4 E off Calumet breakwater light. The divers that do locate and work this wreck, will be able to make a very nice profit for their efforts. For it seems that the collectors of marine relics, have shown marked interest in this wreck in the past few years, and are very anxious to add an item or two from the only five masred vessel to ever sail the Great Lakes, to their private collection. icidentally, this includes the writer! And I sincerely hope that when located, the locating divers will keep us in mind for a relic from it.

      First Lady Of Chicago Shipwrecks
      By Richard C. Drew
The David Dows was the grandest cargo schooner ever to sail the Great Lakes, and at the time, was the largest 5 masted schooner in the world. Now embraced by Lake Michigan's waters, she is one of the most popular attractions for Chicago divers.
Seeing photographs and paintings of this splendid lady of the lakes brings to the mind's eye visions of Errol Flynn, his ship under full sail, racing over high seas. The David Dows was an
accomplishment on a grandiose scale.
The David Dows had five masts, each with a top mast, that, like slender fingers, reached gracefully skyward. Going aft, her masts were respectively 93, 97, 97, 93 and 88 feet high. The top masts added another 65 feet, except for the jigger top mast which was 55 feet. Her Booms ranged from 50 feet to 36 feet, her Gaffs 40 feet to 30 feet. Her specifications were also impressive: 365 feet long, 37 foot beam, 18 foot draft and over 1,400 net tons.
The ship's owners, Carrington & Casey, wanted speed as well as scale. They got it.
Under full sail the Dows' 5,000 plus square yards of Mount Vernon Canvas powered her to some of the fastest crossing times of the day, once sailing the 254 miles from Toledo to Buffalo in 18 hours. It actually required over eight hours to hoist all her sails - even using a donkey engine!
To combat the unpredictable waters of the Great Lakes and hold a ship of this size in place required anchors as grand as the ship. The Dows' two main anchors each had 540 feet of chain, each link 1 3/4" to 1 1/2" in diameter. The larger anchor weighed 4,000 lbs, the smaller 3,600 pounds. Her kedge anchor weighed 700 lbs.
Her hull was solid Oak, banded on the outside with one by eight inch iron strapping. It could be said that the hull's construction resembled a wooden barrel.
The Dows was constructed in an era when the use of sail was declining, and steam was on the rise. Carrington & Casey were shipping magnates, had numerous ships on the Great Lakes, and believed in sail.
Bolstered by their success with the 1,441 ton Schooner George W. Adams, Carrington & Casey had noble visions for the David Dows. She was narrower, longer and weighed in at 1,481 tons. During her two year life as a schooner, the Dows was in constant competition with the Adams. Although the Dows was larger, the Adams could often carry more cargo.
The Adams and Dows had an ongoing rivalry. The Dows was designed with port improvements in mind, so had a deeper draft. The Adams, being wider and shorter, could hold more cargo without settling deeper than the Dows. Wagering was fierce whenever the
two ships were in the same port. The locals, dock workers and sailors would watch anxiously as cargo was loaded into the holds of each ship. Which would carry more?
If you bet on the Adams, you usually came out ahead. The main reason was the Dows' two centerboards. At 27 and 25 feet long, they increased the draft beyond the depth of most ports, riding so low in the water that the Dows could not take on a full cargo without bottoming out in the harbor or shallower parts of the lakes!
Most times loading had to be stopped well before the Dows settled to her waterline. After launching, it was found that the David Dows had to be towed to the deeper water at Ironville before the centerboards could even be installed.
This was only the first of many dilemmas the David Dows faced. As if plagued by King Tut's Curse, calamities befell the David Dows and those connected with her.
Nearing completion, she was scuttled while still on the blocks to prevent her from being swept away by rampaging ice capped floodwaters. Many ships tied fast at the docks were torn free, to be smashed to kindling in what was one of the worst floods of the century.
The builders, Bailey Brothers, constructed only one more ship before closing down. The ship's outfitters, the M.I. Wilcox Company, burned to its foundations just hours after Receiving the Dows job.
As if all this wasn't portent enough, the ship's second mate died of a heart attack while supervising construction.
These inauspicious happenings were forgotten, when with cheers and boat whistles loud enough to be heard several towns over, the Dows was launched into Lake Erie's waters at exactly 4:30 pm, April 21, 1881. Watched by half the surrounding community and with over 200 guests on board, the Dows was the center of a huge celebration.
After having her centerboards affixed, she set sail for Buffalo, lengthwise across Lake Erie. She sailed within sight of the Bass Islands, where just 71 years earlier, Oliver Hazard Perry
defeated six British war ships in the battle of Lake Erie, a key conflict in the War of 1812. To this day the words he spoke at his victory are remembered, "We have met the enemy and they are ours".
In Buffalo she loaded 2,400 tons of coal, a new record. The Dows set sail from Buffalo on May 18th, but ran aground leaving Lake Erie, her 14.5 foot draft catching on the bottom. After being stranded for two days and being slowed by lack of strong winds, she finally arrived in Chicago on May 30, where her arrival was ceremoniously greeted in an official reception honoring her namesake, Mr. David Dows, a prominent Chicago businessman and
intimate friend of Mr. Carrington.
The David Dows' life as a schooner lasted just two controversial years. During this time she grounded several times and had one documented collision that sank the C.K.Nims, this after a lengthy race across Lake Erie. It was also rumored that the Dows collided with and sank the schooner Richard Mott.
The port improvements Carrington & Casey counted on never came about, and the Dows was destined not to live up to her expected capacity of over 150,000 bushels.
Captain Joseph Skeldon was master of the Dows since her first day, and one must wonder what he was thinking, when in 1883, he saw the David Dows' top masts removed, this once sovereign of the lakes, cut down to a cargo barge. Captain Skeldon left for a new command.
As a barge she was a ghost of her former self. Her masts remained, albeit without a shred of sail. On rainy nights she looked much like an apparition from a mariners nightmare.
As if haunted by bad luck, ill fate continued to plague the David Dows.
In 1885, while under tow, the Dows ran aground 100 feet within Canadian waters, causing a minor incident with Canadian Customs. Later the same year, while passing through Sault Saint Marie, MI, she snapped free of her tow line and rammed the wharf, causing heavy damage to it, and one of the ships secured there.
The little luck she had ran out during the Thanksgiving Day storm of 1889. In tow of the steamer Aurora, the George W. Adams and David Dows were bound for Chicago with a load of coal. The icy winds were fierce, and the Dows soon began taking on water. The Captain of the Aurora, fearing for his ships safety, set the two barges adrift.
Each barge had her own crew, and they were ordered to stay at anchor and ride the storm out. The Adams survived, but during the night the Dows only source of power, her donkey engine, broke down. Pumps that were vainly keeping pace with the inrush of water stopped. By the time it was repaired the pumps had frozen solid. The crew was stranded, watching hopelessly as the frigid waters slowly filled the Dows hold.
The Government Lifesaving Service was notified of the barges predicament once the Aurora reached Chicago. The tug Crowell, with Captain Peters of the Lifesaving Service, was dispatched. Upon reaching the barges it was obvious that the Dows was crippled, and Captain Peters ordered her abandoned. Her crew, suffering from exposure and severe frostbite, must have been only too happy to do so.
The Dows finally slipped beneath the windswept waters at 2:30 pm, November 29, 1889, after just eight years on the Great Lakes. She came to rest in approximately 40 feet of water, upright, her masts rising above the surface, a five pointed tombstone. Even in death, the Adams cheated the Dows.
Her masts were removed that same day, her rigging and machinery soon following. Almost $30,000.00, half the insured amount of $60,000.00, was spent by the underwriters Attempting to raise her. As winter began to set its icy grip on Lake Michigan, all they had to show for their salvage efforts was 1,400 tons of coal.
A second attempt was made at resurrecting the Dows the following year, but it was discovered that her hull was held firm by the lake's bottom, the sand packed around the hull as deep as 15 feet. Further investigation by a hard hat diver revealed that
the hull was broken in two, the foreword 75 feet snapped off. This, along with other signs that the Lake Michigan winter had treated the Dows cruelly, put an end to any salvage attempts.
Lying just 7 miles from the Chicago Lake front, 5 miles from the Indiana Shoals, the Dows was to remain forgotten for 19 years. Then, in 1908, the Dows was rediscovered, and portions of her planking removed. She sat again forgotten, battered by surge and
storms, for over half a century.
Divers again found the Dows in the late 50's, when SCUBA was in its infancy. Between then and now, much of the ship has been removed. Planks, scraps of wood, iron spikes. Almost every diver to visit her has taken some memento.
The David Dows is as easy as wreck diving comes. Just a 45 minute boat ride from Calumet Harbor, her remains lie scattered in 40 feet of water. Some large parts of her hull remain intact. Other parts rise from the bottom like some enigmatic ribcage, her keel the backbone.
      We have dove the Dows dozens of times over the past ten years. Many parts of the wreck are now familiar to me, but I continue to discover new and interesting sections. A conglomeration of wood here, a storm-tossed part there. The base support of one mast is
still in place, upright, part of a ladder attached. It's easy to visualize where the deck would have been, a hatchway, and the hold. This is also the best place to take good photographs, as it's the shallowest part of the wreck, just under 30 feet. It's hard to picture these destitute remains as belonging to the David Dows, but with a little imagination and knowledge of the vessel, parts of the ship can be identified.
The whole site is greenly lit by natural light, with visibility averaging between four and twenty feet. Trying to identify a whole ship in four foot visibility is like trying to accurately
depict a car from puzzle pieces a fraction of an inch across. You follow the wreckage along the sandy bottom, new pieces appearing through a fog of silt ahead, fading away behind. Some parts of the remains can be identified, many are beyond recognition, just a few linked algae covered planks
I've visited the Dows one day and had fifteen foot visibility, and been met by five foot visibility the next. No matter what the visibility, I always bring a light - it's great for peering in crannies and cavities, perhaps startling a crayfish or revealing some new part of the wreck.
The bottom is a combination of small rocks and fine sand, the kind that hangs forever in the water if you stir it up. In many areas Lake Michigan's bottom and the David Dows merge, the wreckage swallowed by the sand. Experienced divers keep their kicking to a minimum and use the many hand-holds wreckage of this nature provides to pull themselves along. This keeps the silting down and helps conserve air.
There is marine life present, if you know where to look for it. Schools of fish are about the wreck, and crayfish peer from beneath rocks and timbers. Bring along a couple of hot dogs and you can make some fast friends with crawdads and carp.
Accenting the hiss-click of the regulator, there is usually a hollow, drum-like sound, much like a heart beat, heard around the wreck. After a few dives I discovered that the wave action was causing one of the few remaining deck supports to rock on its' pegs, causing the throbbing sound.
Lake Michigan's waters require a full wet suit, boots, a hood and coral gloves (for protection from scrapes). During the summer the surface temperature gets as warm as 72 degrees. But on the bottom, past the thermocline, the temperature can drop 20 degrees. As the wreck is comparatively shallow, averaging 35 feet, one tank can last a considerable time.
Most dive charter operators and shops in the Chicago area offer the Dows on their dive roster. Divers usually get a choice of one or two dives per outing. If you have your own boat you can easily find the Dows. She is depicted on NOAA chart 14927 (follow a line from Jackson Park Harbor East, and Buffington Harbor North - the lines intersect just above the Dows), and is easily spotted with a depth sounder. If you have a Loran, it's even simpler. The Dows is located at 33383.5 X 50201.5 (your readings may differ slightly).
      The Dows is the first lady of Chicago diving, and due to the efforts of the Chicago Maritime Society may soon be in the National Register of Historic Places. The Maritime Society also
has a scale model of the Dows on exhibit. Formerly at the Newberry Library, the model is the most accurate portrayal of the Dows anywhere.
Most people don't realize the hoard of shipwrecks that lie a short distance from Chicago's shore. The David Dows is just one, but I like to think the richest, if not in condition, in history.

NOTE: This also appeared in the November 1989 Skin Diver Magazine Issue

Media Type:
Item Type:
Reason: sunk
Lives: nil
Freight: coal
Remarks: Total loss
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Geographic Coverage:
  • Illinois, United States
    Latitude: 41.85003 Longitude: -87.65005
William R. McNeil
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David Dows (Schooner), sunk, 29 Nov 1889