1957 The Sawtelle Expedition

 Jim Sawtelle, shipwreck hunter and shipwreck furniture maker, looked for the Westmoreland for nearly a decade.


The Grand Rapids Press
September 30, 1957

Treasures Lure Divers
Fabulous Wealth Dots Lake Michigan Floor, Chart Shows

…Among them are a young diver and his wife, James and Nancy Sawtelle, who now make their home in Frankfort and have made diving and the manufacture and sale of diving equipment a life work.

Wrecks Are Legendary.

Jim was first attracted to Frankfort because of its proximity to the most fabulous of the Great Lakes wrecks, the legendary Westmoreland. This 206 foot, 42 foot beam packet steamer was sunk in Platte bay off the mouth of Otter creek in a severe storm in 1854. the Westmoreland reportedly carried $100,000 in gold for lumber camp pay rolls and 280 barrels of “high wine” (a brandy) as part of its cargo. Passengers on the ill-fated voyage were believed to have had much jewelry stored in the ship’s safe.

According to Sawtelle, who did two and a half years research on the Westmoreland, a liquor expert recently guessed that the 70,000 fifths of liquor aboard—if still in original condition in the casks—would retail now at about 3.5 million dollars.

“This wreck” says Jim, “and the 90 odd others in 28 miles of coastline near Frankfort are enough to keep a diver busy for years. I have decided to devote five or more years in an attempt to locate the Westmoreland and salvage the cargo.”

Pointing out that skin diving equipment and know how are ideal for the job. Sawtelle stresses that divers who attempt to find the Westmoreland are faced with heavy expense and prodigious labor. With the type of equipment he is now using, Jim feels that his chances of hooking on to the wreck eventually are excellent. The cost of raising it would be great, but the rewards would be immense.

Had Teak Bar.

The ship was fitted with a large hand carved teakwood bar, and if it could be raised, would be worth a fortune as a tourist attraction. Silver, glassware and cabin lamps alone aboard this luxury ship would bring a tremendous price as souvenirs.

Sawtelle, a native of Detroit, is at 29, ideally suited for this underwater search. A solidly built 200 plus pounder, Jim made his first dive with a home made copper helmet at the age of 13. After years of “hat” diving (“hat” refers to the use of a diving helmet) with equipment he made himself. Jim began skin diving about four years ago while searching for a new medium to increase his scope in freelance photography. He has taken many feet of underwater movies and has developed and built several underwater housings for cameras.

Wife Dives Also.

With Nancy, 26, his wife, a native of Flint, it was “either go diving or stay at home.” So, when the duties of caring for three small youngsters permit, Nancy goes diving and helps Jim. The Sawtelles believe that Nancy is the first women to have made a dive under the ice at night. They dive a good deal at Crystal Lake near here and consider under-ice diving in a clear water lake like Crystal one of their most thrilling experiences.

The Sawtelles were married at San Jose, Calif., in 1943, while Jim was in the navy. He served from 1945 to 1949 and spent most of his service time at Kodiak Island and in the Aleutian chain. There he did aerial photography and mapping for the navy and worked underwater both as a photographer and as an inspector of piers, pipes, etc., all along the Aleutians.

Invented Harness.

In 1950 Sawtelle went to Petoskey to make his home and to open a photography business. It was there he began building underwater equipment in his spare time. He developed a harness to hold compressed air tanks which allows the diver to jettison his tanks at any time by merely pulling a single pin. This is a great convenience as well as a safety feature. Jim began the manufacture of these harnesses two years ago here. Four major skin diving equipment companies have shown an interest in distributing the product, now manufactured in Traverse City. He also has perfected a small battery operated submarine motor to propel a diver.

Formerly owner of a 32-foot charter boat from which he carried on salvage operations and conducted large parties of skin diving enthusiasts to wrecks, he has developed large rafts from which to work. These outboard powered sea-going craft are lashed to 22-foot rubber pontoons and are ideal for large parties and for carrying diving equipment for heavy salvage work.

Finds 13 Wrecks.

Since beginning diving in the area, Sawtelle has discovered eight wrecks in Grand Travers bay and five more between Frankfort and South Manitou Island. He says thee are five wrecks in this latter area as valuable or more so than the Westmoreland.

Jim has been working with Capt. Arthur C. Fredrickson, master of one of the Ann Arbor Railway’s carferrys, a man thoroughly versed in the lore of the lakes, in locating wrecks. Frederickson, with his wife, Lucy, has charted the area, listing more than 200 wrecks in this area. The chart was compiled after years of research from old records, books, newspaper accounts and word of mouth from old timers who witnessed many of the disasters. Many of the articles Jim has brought up from the lake have been turned over to a museum of Great Lakes shipping which Frederickson has established at his home here.

Long Diving Season.

Stating that a diver can look forward to six months of excellent diving on Lake Michigan, Sawtelle says he is willing to team with anyone interested in the Westmoreland or any other vessel. Jim has the equipment to dive to 250 feet and plans on building a decompression stage on one of his two rafts and adding many other niceties, such as deep water lights.

Sawtelle is now working on a salvage job at Cross Village on the White Swan, a diesel powered 83-foot lumber hooker. He has salvaged the big motor on the ship. The vessel ran onto a sandbar while loaded with veneer logs. The Manthie Bros. Veneer Mills is owner of the boat and Sawtelle did an inspection dive on the wreck last December. He says, to his knowledge, it is the first major job, at least in the Great Lakes, to be done exclusively with skin diving equipment.


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