1954 Captian Harold E. VanNiman

Larger than life, the charismatic Capt. Harold E VanNiman, known as "Van" by friends, knew how to make friends and attract attention. While only in Frankfort during the summer of 1954, Van managed to befriend Capt. Art Fredrickson and writer Roy Sparkia. In 1954, Frankfort Michigan buzzed with stories of his adventures. But were they just stories?...

Lake Michigan Treasure Hunt
Did the Steamer Westmoreland Have a Cargo of Brandy and Gold When it Sank 100 Years Ago This Week? Diver Harold Van Niman Hopes to Find Out
By Roy Benard Sparkia

One hundred years ago next Thursday the Westmoreland, a brand new 800-ton package frater plying between Chicago and Buffalo, ran into a blizzard on Lake Michigan. Laden with ice, she foundered in Platte bay, near Frankfort, Mich., and went down in 12 fathoms of water. Seventeen men went with her. So did the cargo, the contents of which have been something of a mystery for a whole century --- a mystery that perhaps is on the point of being solved.

At the time and for many decades afterward, the story was that the Westmoreland carried some 350 barrels of brandy, not to mention some $100,000 in gold coins. It was a cargo to excite the imagination of adventure seekers, and there were many attempts to locate the sunken ship and regain its wealth of gold and its possibly priceless potables.

Paul Pelkey, first mate of the Westmoreland, who was one of the survivors of the disaster, became one of the most celebrated of the early treasure hunters. As he and a few other bedraggled survivors neared shore in a lifeboat after the Westmoreland went down, he took secret bearings on certain trees at the mouth of Otter creek, memorizing the location of the sunken craft.

Pelkey returned in 1872, as captain of the tug Ida Stevens, and announced happily, one midsummer day, that he had found the lost frater. The statement was premature, however, for he never was able to identify his underwater discoveries satisfactorily and never brought a grain of gold or a drop of liquor to the surface.

By this time there were beginning to be some doubts about the authenticity of the cargo’s glamour. An engineer who had survived the sinking declared the gold and liquor story was an old wives’ take---that the cargo actually consisted of nothing more than oats, flour, wool, butter, beets, and hogs. That was the way it was carried in the report of the secretary of the treasury for 1854-55.

The controversy did not completely discourage the fortune seekers. They came back time and time again as the generations went by. As recently as 1936-37, there was a full scale expedition, sponsored by Dr. Nelson and A.P. Peterson of Frankfort, Mich, with Jack Brown (sp), a diver of some note, prowling the lake bottom in search of the vanished Westmoreland. The story goes that the only financial return on their investment was a single penny, found by Brown (sp) on the slimy deck of a submerged ship---but the penny was dated 1857, three tears after the Westmoreland went to her watery grave! (NOTE: Dr. Nelson was Joseph Nelson, a prominent dentist in Frankfort and Peterson was the publisher of the Benzie County Patriot).

The mystery of the hundred year old frater has been neglected since before World War II, but Michiganders in the vicinity of Frankfort have not forgotten it altogether---and when they became aware of a newcomer prowling the waters of Platte bay last spring, excited talk of the ancient cargo sprang up immediately.

Harold E. Van Niman, a professional prowler of the deep. Was the man who aroused the curiosity of the locals. Heading a unit from his own United Salvage company, with headquarters in Flint, Mich., “Van” dealed any interest in treasure hunting. His sole purpose, he said, was to make a hydrophysical study of the lake bottom and to obtain core drills for sand, gravel, and oil firms.

The natives’ disbelief in his original story was understandable---for Van is no amateur at underwater treasure hunts. He had participated in several famous expeditions for sunken fortunes, and only the year before had led Michigan’s most publicized treasure hunt---a search for 500 tons of copper aboard the Kitty Reeves, sunk off Tawas point in Lake Huron. He found the copper---buried under 18 feet of sand---but legal complications still are holding up completion of the project.

Belatedly, after a summer in which progress has been slow but not too discouraging, Van concedes that he has been looking for the long lost Westmoreland. In fact, he declares he positively has found it---that men have trod its decks for the first time in a century, that he and his divers have seen the barrels believed

How does he know this really is the Westmoreland? And why hasn’t he raised it? As a part time member of Van’s crew, I can answer those two pertinent questions. And, before that, I can interpose Van’s own certainty that the venerable hull actually does contain the brandy and gold it originally was said to have carried. In American Express offices in Chicago, and at a distillery in Pekin, Ill., Van located ancient records confirming the shipments, dates, and other information.

He is certain this really is the Westmoreland, because his preparations for the search have been so much more there than any earlier expeditions could make. He started by consulting old lighthouse and government weather records over a 50-year period to determine average conditions for ‘the Platte bay area during the month in which the Westmoreland sank.

Then aided by research into the canging coast line, depth and bottom conditions, and taking into account such factors as displacement, cargo tonnage, size of propeller and revolutions per minute, and estimate of wind velocity and lake currents, Van calculated how far and in what direction the foundered ship would proceed before sinking. This narrowed down considerably the area to be searched.

For the actual expedition, Van utilizes every known method, including many which were not in existence at the time of earlier searches. He uses depth echo ranging instruments, magnetic anomaly detectors, the simpler methods of probing, sounding, dragging, and a few unique methods of his own which are in the category of professional secrets.

It required weeks or monotonous search before Van located what he believes is the Westmoreland, weeks in which the weather stormed and rained and kicked up Lake Michigan in a way unusually rough for the season. And now that it is found, there remains one tremendous hitch to the quick raising of the Westmoreland.

When first discovered, last May 14, the vessel was submerged approximately two-thirds under the sand, with only portions of the pilot house, cabins, and stacks visile. The upper hatch over the machinery compartment was open and the visible place was nearly filled with slit. Van and his relief diver, Don Hockins, were able to penetrate into the machinery room and peer into the murky hold, where they sighted the stacks of barrels.

Before they got any farther, the lake was churned up by another series of squalls and storms. Thru the summer months, when conditions might be favorable, there were not more than a dozen days suitable for diving in Platte bay.

When weather again permitted operations, we found the Westmoreland was almost completely covered with sand and strong bottom currents along with thick sediment were finishing the job of covering it. The ever changing bottom of the lake may account for the fact that no earlier expeditions had found the elusive vessel

And that, as of now, is the story of the Westmoreland. Van either must assemble the heavy equipment and sand sucking machines necessary to uncover the raise the craft---or wait for the lake, in her own good time, to uncover it with winds and currents from other directions.

Then it will be bottoms up with glasses of century mellowed brandy and money in the bank---or bitter disappointment!


Benzie County Patriot, February 17, 1955
Diver, Insisting Treasure Hunt Was Legitimate, Put Under $1,000 Bond

Deep-sea diver Harold Van Niman, 31, insisted at his arraignment last Friday, Feb. 11, that his attempt to recover the “Westmoreland” sunk in Platte Bay north of here was a legitimate venture.

Van Niman was arrested Wednesday, Feb. 9th at East Tawas, Michigan on a charge of obtaining money for the treasure under false pretenses. He was returned to Flint Thursday night by Flint detective Lt. John R. Burton, who investigated the case with Detective Fay Peek. His hearing was west for next Friday and the bond was $1,000.

According to Burton, Van Niman admitted he obtained $8000.000 from three Flint men and $1,600 from an 84-year old East Tawas man to finance an attempt to salvage the Westmoreland, sunk 100 years ago off Platte River. Van Niman insists he located a sunken hull last year in diving operations at the bay and that he was certain it is the Westmoreland, although it had no nameplate, Burton said.

Burton reported Van Niman also said this:
The salvage operation was a sincere endeavor to find the wreck of the ship and recover its cargo of gold, whisky and mining equipment. He also intended to take the ship from the bay and restore it for historical purposes, since no similar vessel is on display in the Great Lakes area.

He saw a keg of whiskey in the sunken hull he reached but did not remove it.

(editor‘s note) In an article appearing in the Patriot last summer Van Niman had indicated that he had removed a barrel from a wreck in the bay and was having its contents analyzed at some unnamed place.

The money given to him was used for expenses, except for $400 which he spent for “personal uses.” He regarded the money paid out by the four men as more of a loan than an investment.

He figured he had sold his interest in the project and would not receive any monetary gain from it, but would profit from finding the vessel, receiving publicity and getting other salvage jobs in the Great Lakes area.
Burton has said Van Niman told at least five versions of what happened during last year’s diving. Van Niman told at least five versions of what happened during last year’s diving. Van Niman had worked as a bartender in Flint and told Burton he was in and out of Flint during the last several months.

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