The David Dows was the grandest cargo schooner ever
to sail the Great Lakes, and at the time, was the largest 5 masted schooner in the world.
Now embraced by Lake Michigan's waters, she is one of the most popular attractions
for Chicago divers.
Seeing photographs and paintings of this splendid lady of the lakes brings to the mind's
eye visions of Errol Flynn, his ship under full sail, racing over high seas. The
David Dows was an accomplishment on a grandiose scale.
The David Dows had five masts, each with a top mast, that, like slender fingers, reached
gracefully skyward. Going aft, her masts were respectively 93, 97, 97, 93 and 88
feet high. The top masts added another 65 feet, except for the jigger top mast which
was 55 feet. Her Booms ranged from 50 feet to 36 feet, her Gaffs 40 feet to 30 feet.
Her specifications were also impressive: 365 feet long, 37 foot beam, 18 foot draft
and over 1,400 net tons.
The ship's owners, Carrington & Casey, wanted speed as well as scale. They got
Under full sail the Dows' 5,000 plus square yards of Mount Vernon Canvas powered her to
some of the fastest crossing times of the day, once sailing the 254 miles from Toledo to
Buffalo in 18 hours. It actually required over eight hours to hoist all her sails -
even using a donkey engine! To combat the unpredictable waters of the Great Lakes and hold
a ship of this size in place required anchors as grand as the ship.
The Dows' two main anchors each had 540 feet of chain, each link 1 3/4" to 1
1/2" in diameter. The larger anchor weighed 4,000 lbs, the smaller 3,600
pounds. Her kedge anchor weighed 700 lbs. Her hull was solid Oak, banded on
the outside with one by eight inch iron strapping. It could be said that the
hull's construction resembled a wooden barrel. The Dows was constructed in an era
when the use of sail was declining, and steam was on the rise.
Carrington & Casey were shipping magnates, had numerous ships on the Great Lakes,
and believed in sail. Bolstered by their success with the 1,441 ton Schooner George
W. Adams, Carrington & Casey had noble visions for the David Dows. She was
narrower, longer and weighed in at 1,481 tons. During her two year life as a
schooner, the Dows was in constant competition with the Adams. Although the Dows was
larger, the Adams could often carry more cargo.
The Adams and Dows had an ongoing rivalry. The Dows was designed with port
improvements in mind, so had a deeper draft. The Adams, being wider and shorter,
could hold more cargo without settling deeper than the Dows. Wagering was fierce
whenever the two ships were in the same port. The locals, dock workers and sailors
would watch anxiously as cargo was loaded into the holds of each ship. Which would
If you bet on the Adams, you usually came out ahead. The main reason was the Dows'
two centerboards. At 27 and 25 feet long, they increased the draft beyond the depth
of most ports, riding so low in the water that the Dows could not take on a full cargo
without bottoming out in the harbor or shallower parts of the lakes!
Most times loading had to be stopped well before the Dows settled to her waterline.
After launching, it was found that the David Dows had to be towed to the deeper
water at Ironville before the centerboards could even be installed.
This was only the first of many dilemmas the David Dows faced. As if plagued by King
Tut's Curse, calamities befell the David Dows and those connected with her.
Nearing completion, she was scuttled while still on the blocks to prevent her from being
swept away by rampaging ice capped floodwaters. Many ships tied fast at the docks
were torn free, to be smashed to kindling in what was one of the worst floods of the
The builders, Bailey Brothers, constructed only one more ship before closing down.
The ship's outfitters, the M.I.Wilcox Company, burned to its foundations just hours
after receiving the Dows job. As if all this wasn't portent enough, the ship's second mate
died of a heart attack while supervising construction.
These inauspicious happenings were forgotten, when with cheers and boat whistles loud
enough to be heard several towns over, the Dows was launched into Lake Erie's waters at
exactly 4:30 pm, April 21, 1881. Watched by half the surrounding community and with
over 200 guests on board, the Dows was the center of a huge celebration.
After having her centerboards affixed, she set sail for Buffalo, lengthwise across Lake
Erie. She sailed within sight of the Bass Islands, where just 71 years earlier,
Oliver Hazard Perry defeated six British war ships in the battle of Lake Erie, a key
conflict in the War of 1812. To this day the words he spoke at his victory are
remembered, "We have met the enemy and they are ours".
In Buffalo she loaded 2,400 tons of coal, a new record. The Dows set sail from
Buffalo on May 18th, but ran aground leaving Lake Erie, her 14.5 foot draft catching on
the bottom. After being stranded for two days and being slowed by lack of strong
winds, she finally arrived in Chicago on May 30, where her arrival was ceremoniously
greeted in an official reception honoring her namesake, Mr. David Dows, a prominent
Chicago businessman and intimate friend of Mr. Carrington.
The David Dows' life as a schooner lasted just two
controversial years. During this time she grounded several times and had one
documented collision that sank the C.K.Nims, this after a lengthy race across Lake Erie.
It was also rumored that the Dows collided with and sank the schooner Richard Mott.
The port improvements Carrington & Casey counted on never came about, and the Dows was
destined not to live up to her expected capacity of over 150,000 bushels.
Captain Joseph Skeldon was master of the Dows since her first day, and one must wonder
what he was thinking, when in 1883, he saw the David Dows' top masts removed, this once
sovereign of the lakes, cut down to a cargo barge. Captain Skeldon left for a new
As a barge she was a ghost of her former self. Her masts remained, albeit without a shred
of sail. On rainy nights she looked much like an apparition from a mariners nightmare. As
if haunted by bad luck, ill fate continued to plague the David Dows.
In 1885, while under tow, the Dows ran aground 100 feet within Canadian waters, causing a
minor incident with Canadian Customs. Later the same year, while passing through
Sault Saint Marie, MI, she snapped free of her tow line and rammed the wharf, causing
heavy damage to it, and one of the ships secured there.
The little luck she had ran out during the Thanksgiving Day storm of 1889. In tow of
the steamer Aurora, the George W. Adams and David Dows were bound for Chicago with a load
of coal. The icy winds were fierce, and the Dows soon began taking on water.
The Captain of the Aurora, fearing for his ships safety, set the two barges adrift.
Each barge had her own crew, and they were ordered to stay at anchor and ride the storm
out. The Adams survived, but during the night the Dows only source of power, her
donkey engine, broke down. Pumps that were vainly keeping pace with the inrush of
water stopped. By the time it was repaired the pumps had frozen solid. The
crew was stranded, watching hopelessly as the frigid waters slowly filled the Dows hold.
The Government Lifesaving Service was notified of the barges predicament once the Aurora
reached Chicago. The tug Crowell, with Captain Peters of the Lifesaving Service, was
dispatched. Upon reaching the barges it was obvious that the Dows was crippled, and
Captain Peters ordered her abandoned. Her crew, suffering from exposure and severe
frostbite, must have been only too happy to do so.
The Dows finally slipped beneath the windswept waters at 2:30 pm, November 29, 1889, after
just eight years on the Great Lakes. She came to rest in approximately 40 feet of water,
upright, her masts rising above the surface, a five pointed tombstone. Even in
death, the Adams cheated the Dows.
Her masts were removed that same day, her rigging and machinery soon following.
Almost $30,000.00, half the insured amount of $60,000.00, was spent by the
underwriters attempting to raise her. As winter began to set its icy grip on Lake
Michigan, all they had to show for their salvage efforts was 1,400 tons of coal.
A second attempt was made at resurrecting the Dows the following year, but it was
discovered that her hull was held firm by the lake's bottom, the sand packed around the
hull as deep as 15 feet. Further investigation by a hard hat diver revealed that the
hull was broken in two, the foreword 75 feet snapped off. This, along with other
signs that the Lake Michigan winter had treated the Dows cruelly, put an end to any
Lying just 7 miles from the Chicago Lake front, 5 miles from the Indiana Shoals, the
Dows was to remain forgotten for 19 years. Then, in 1908, the Dows was rediscovered,
and portions of her planking removed. She sat again forgotten, battered by surge and
storms, for over half a century.
Divers again found the Dows in the late 50's, when SCUBA was in its infancy. Between
then and now, much of the ship has been removed. Planks, scraps of wood, iron
spikes. Almost every diver to visit her has taken some memento.
The David Dows is as easy as wreck diving comes. Just a 45 minute boat ride from
Calumet Harbor, her remains lie scattered in 40 feet of water. Some large parts of
her hull remain intact. Other parts rise from the bottom like some enigmatic
ribcage, her keel the backbone.
I've dove the Dows dozens of times over the past ten years. Many parts of the wreck
are now familiar to me, but I continue to discover new and interesting sections. A
conglomeration of wood here, a storm-tossed part there. The base support of one mast
is still in place, upright, part of a ladder attached. It's easy to visualize where
the deck would have been, a hatchway, and the hold. This is also the best place to
take good photographs, as it's the shallowest part of the wreck, just under 30 feet.
It's hard to picture these destitute remains as belonging to the David Dows, but with a
little imagination and knowledge of the vessel, parts of the ship can be identified.
The whole site is greenly lit by natural light, with visibility averaging between four and
twenty feet. Trying to identify a whole ship in four foot visibility is like trying
to accurately depict a car from puzzle pieces a fraction of an inch across. You
follow the wreckage along the sandy bottom, new pieces appearing through a fog of silt
ahead, fading away behind. Some parts of the remains can be identified, many are
beyond recognition, just a few linked algae covered planks
I've visited the Dows one day and had fifteen foot visibility, and been met by five foot
visibility the next. No matter what the visibility, I always bring a light - it's
great for peering in crannies and cavities, perhaps startling a crayfish or revealing some
new part of the wreck.
The bottom is a combination of small rocks and fine sand, the kind that hangs forever in
the water if you stir it up. In many areas Lake Michigan's bottom and the David Dows
merge, the wreckage swallowed by the sand. Experienced divers keep their kicking to
a minimum and use the many hand-holds wreckage of this nature provides to pull themselves
along. This keeps the silting down and helps conserve air.
There is marine life present, if you know where to look for it. Schools of
fish are about the wreck, and crayfish peer from beneath rocks and timbers. Bring
along a couple of hot dogs and you can make some fast friends with crawdads and carp.
Accenting the hiss-click of the regulator, there is usually a hollow, drum-like sound,
much like a heart beat, heard around the wreck. After a few dives I discovered that
the wave action was causing one of the few remaining deck supports to rock on its' pegs,
causing the throbbing sound.
Lake Michigan's waters require a full wet suit, boots, a hood and coral gloves (for
protection from scrapes). During the summer the surface temperature gets as warm as
72 degrees. But on the bottom, past the thermocline, the temperature can drop 20
degrees. As the wreck is comparatively shallow, averaging 35 feet, one tank can last
a considerable time.
Most dive charter operators and shops in the Chicago area offer the Dows on their dive
roster. Divers usually get a choice of one or two dives per outing. If you
have your own boat you can easily find the Dows. She is depicted on NOAA chart 14927
(follow a line from Jackson Park Harbor East, and Buffington Harbor North - the lines
intersect just above the Dows), and is easily spotted with a depth sounder. If you
have a Loran, it's even simpler. The Dows is located at 33383.5 X 50201.5 (your
readings may differ slightly).
The Dows is the first lady of Chicago diving, and due to the efforts of the Chicago
Maritime Society may soon be in the National Register of Historic Places. The
Maritime Society also has a scale model of the Dows on exhibit. Formerly at the
Newberry Library, the model is the most accurate portrayal of the Dows anywhere. Most
people don't realize the hoard of shipwrecks that lie a short distance from Chicago's
shore. The David Dows is just one, but I like to think the richest, if not in
condition, in history.
NOTE: This also appeared in the November 1989 Skin Diver Magazine Issue.