Is a sunken fortune hidden in the bottom of Lake Michigan?
It is only a speck of rocky land just east of Wisconsin, surrounded by the chilly waters of Lake Michigan. It is called Poverty Island, an apt name, especially when treacherous storms sweep in across the lake without warning. Furious winds and lightning-swift currents have spawned a graveyard of sunken ships and over the years, intriguing tales of lost treasure.
One legend in particular has claimed that, just offshore of Poverty Island, there are five chests stuffed with gold bullion and coins, which would today be worth more than $400 million. Richard Bennett, a professional diver and author, has spent more than 20 years and $100,000 of his own money searching for the sunken fortune:
“Any story that survives 100 years has to have some validity to it. If they survive 100 years, they probably have an 80, 85% chance of being true.”
But how could $400 million in gold end up on the bottom of Lake Michigan? The treasure story reaches back to 1863, when the tide of the Civil War was turning in favor of the Union. The beleaguered South, strapped for capital, put out a desperate call for relief to France. According to the legend, the French emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte III, secretly dispatched a shipment of gold across the Atlantic to Canada. It was then spirited down the St. Lawrence River and into Lake Michigan. But some believed that, while traveling inland to Chicago, the ship was attacked and sank. Others believed it was shipwrecked in a storm. In either event, the chests of gold never arrived.
Steve Harrington, a maritime historian, is convinced the treasure is still located off the coast of Poverty Island:
“I think that's one of the most intriguing things about this legend is that it's consistent in that the loss is always at Poverty Island. There are always five chests, and it's always the same scenario.”
However, historian Chuck Feltner disagrees. He has spent many years in the Great Lakes searching for shipwrecks. Feltner believes that the legend of the treasure is a good story, but holds no truth:
“Records of shipwrecks on the great lakes in the year 1863 are extremely good. We've not been able to find any evidence that any of these vessels that were recorded to have been lost were sunk in the vicinity of Poverty Island or that they were French vessels, as the legend would have it to be.”
Despite the lack of a paper trail, the legend of the secret shipment has persisted. In 1929, a group of sailors were said to have snagged the five chests with their anchor. Up it came, just seconds away, a fortune in gold, when suddenly the chains broke. The treasure plummeted back to its watery grave.
A few years later, a group of investors in Chicago raised $50,000 to try their luck at Poverty Island. According to Richard Bennett, a young boy named Karly Jesson, whose father was the local lighthouse keeper, was said to have watched the salvage operation for three consecutive summers:
“One day, he was sitting on the rocks watching this operation, and there was a lot of rejoicing, revelry—obviously a real... congratulatory party that was going on, on the ship.”
According to the boy, a storm hit that night, and the salvage ship sank with all the men on board. The heartless tides of Lake Michigan had once again reclaimed the Poverty Island treasure.
Today, Richard Bennett feels confident that he will succeed where others have failed. Bennett has devised an ingenious underwater sled to comb the murky depths of Lake Michigan.
“The only way to really find this treasure is to have human beings on the sled visually looking at the bottom. It's cold. It's deep. The area is very treacherous. But I'm a dreamer, and I'm a gambler. As long as I have those things working for me, I'll probably continue to do it.”
Will Richard Bennett ever find the Poverty Island treasure? Only time will tell. Until that day, Lake Michigan will keep its grip on the five wooden treasure chests hidden far beneath its surface.