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Rare whiskey could be salvaged from 170-year-old shipwreck

The Westmoreland, which sank to the bottom of Lake Michigan in 1854, could contain more than US$20 million worth of gold and rare whiskey.

Another Lake Michigan shipwreck, for illustrative purposes.

The ship was lost during a storm on 7 December 1854, taking with it 17 of its crew, gold, and 280 barrels of whiskey. It wasn’t until 2010 that it was rediscovered, in Platte Bay, Michigan, by diver and shipwreck hunter Ross Richardson almost 60 metres below the water’s surface using sonar to scan the lakebed. The cold water has kept the wreck in good condition, making it one of the best preserved wrecks from the 19th Century.

Now, Richardson is seeking a permit to salvage some of the treasure from the wreckage, a requirement for removing artefacts from the Great Lakes. Though he estimated that his quest for the wreck cost in the region of $10,000, what lies within could be worth significantly more than that. Inside the wreck is a large number of coins, likely the pay for the garrison on Mackinac Island, where the ship was headed on its fateful final voyage. Richardson estimated that the value of the coins was in the region of $20m.

While the gold has particular allure, especially due to the presence of rare ‘double eagle’ coins, the whiskey cargo has piqued the interest of some local businesses, as Richardson explained: “A regional distillery is extremely interested in salvaging the whiskey barrels for testing and selling…The genetic makeup of corn was much different in 1854 and may have had a different taste to today’s corn.”

But those eager for a taste of whiskey from the presidency of Franklin Pierce will have to be patient. The issue of extracting the precious cargo poses numerous logistical challenges, and Richardson acknowledged: “…we are a long way, maybe decades, from making that happen”.

It isn’t just whiskey that can be incredibly valuable after a prolonged stint underwater, some of the most valuable bottles of Champagne have been extracted from shipwrecks.

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