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:
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:
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:
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:
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.
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.
Photos by Richard T. Bennett