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 33.5 feet. Her hold was over fourteen feet in depth and she could carry approximately 50,000 bushels of corn.
Sadly, she served only ten years on the Great Lakes. On May 21, 1883, en route from Buffalo to Chicago with a load of coal, the Wells Burt encountered a furious storm on the lake. Residents of Chicago reported waves crashing against the lake-front with spray up to 100 feet high. The storm was too much for the Wells Burt. Her steering gear became disabled, she broached to and her mizzen mast ripped loose. She swamped and sank. All eleven crew members perished. She 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 damage, and recovered 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 the sinking, in the autumn of 1988, professional divers notified the Underwater Archaeological Society that they had discovered the Wells Burt. This wreck was unusual to Chicago because it was totally intact. In 1989, the UASC undertook a project to study the Wells Burt, to share this find with the diving public and attempt to keep the wreck preserved for future generations to enjoy and learn from. Products of that survey include a video tape, a database of all the artifacts, slides of each artifact and this site map.
Unfortunately for everyone, sometime between the autumn of 1990 and the spring of 1991, the Wells Burt was vandalized. An individual or individuals removed ten secured deadeyes and several loose artifacts. To add insult to injury, they ripped one of the four interpretive plaques from the hull of the ship. The State of Illinois Historic Preservation Agency responded by offering a $2000.00 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 clay 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 all withstood the test of time.
The Underwater Archaeological Society of Chicago encourages all divers to visit this shipwreck. Local charters are available to take you to this site. Remember! Illinois law prohibits the removal of anything from this or any other historic wreck. Please help preserve our maritime heritage