The Mystery of the Keuka
Vice sailed Lake Charlevoix — until an attempted murder put an end to it
By Patrick Sullivan | May 26, 2018
She was known as Lake Charlevoix’s party barge, and you either loved her — or you hated her.
The Keuka was just one of many open secrets around northern Michigan during Prohibition, one of the places where everyone knew you could get a drink. This one happened to float. At a length of 172 feet with a 30-foot beam, the Keuka housed a dance hall, live music, and a bar.
The wild parties and legendary end in the waning days of 1931, however, when a manager was shot in the gut as he attempted to break up a fight.
“The fact that it actually ran as a blind pig meant that somebody had to let it happen, so my take on it was somebody was being paid off,” said David Miles, a curator at the Charlevoix Historical Society, which houses a thick file of newspaper articles, documents and letters about the Keuka in its archive. “When that shooting happened, that might have been the last straw.”
When the Keuka finally sank in 1932, she had already lived a long life. But becoming a shipwreck hardly meant the end of the line for the Keuka. In the decades since, the barge has only grown in stature as a unique destination for divers.
THE EARLY DAYS
The Keuka started life in a far less exceptional way. She was born the A. Stewart, a beefy wooden tow barge built by William DeLac in southeastern Michigan’s Mt. Clemens, in 1889. She spent decades being towed across the Great Lakes by powerful steamships, trundling behind with weighty loads of lumber bound for the region’s burgeoning cities and towns.
In 1928, a new owner purchased her, re-christened her the Keuka (a name reportedly inspired by that of a cherished lake in the Finger Lakes region of New York), and hauled the ragged old lady up to Boyne City for a quieter life more befitting her years. He tied her up on the inland lake of Lake Charlevoix?, near One Water Street, then the location of a restaurant by that name. It isn’t known whether the owner intended her for a grander purpose from the start, or if her hulking frame floating on the water inspired the new owner to see the possibility of a new and bigger kind of profit. But it wasn’t long before a structure was added to the deck, and the Keuka shoved off from shore, enjoying a small distance — and adequate vantage point from which to watch — oncoming boats, including those of police.
Ostensibly a “pleasure barge” with music and dancing that took passengers on idling tours along the waters of Lake Charlevoix, the Keuka also offered a Prohibition-era speakeasy. Most of the time, the ramshackle Keuka was towed across Lake Charlevoix by the steamship Ossian Beddell. Neverthless, for a 40-year-old lumber-barge-turned-tour boat, the Keuka was undeniably popular. According to one newspaper account, she regularly picked up passengers from a dock at Mason Street on Charelevoix’s Round Lake, too. And according to an undated contemporary newspaper account in the historical society’s file, one summer, the Keuka was hauled all the way to Bowers Harbor, in West Grand Traverse Bay, where she anchored for three weeks. Because of her age and disrepair, the Keuka needed to be pumped out daily. A caretaker was hired to accomplish that task; it’s rumored he was paid in whiskey.
Despite her popularity among guests and those employed to keep her afloat, there were few local landlubbers who approved of the Keuka or the lifestyle she enabled. Many banded together and demanded authorities intervene.
“After many complaints from local Charlevoix residents, ranging from distaste with her nightly activities to her state of disrepair, she was towed and anchored off the now Northwest Marina complex” (at the western end of Lake Charlevoix), a writer in the Charlevoix Courier wrote in 1996 in a story based on interviews with old-timers. [Was it shut down, too, or just moved? Do we know if that happened before or after the shooting?]
AN ATTEMPTED MURDER
With those ill-feelings simmering about the Keuka, the attempted murder that occurred in late December 1930 likely didn’t help matters.
On Jan. 1, 1931, the Boyne Citizen reported what led to the shooting of barge manager Ed Latham amid a drunken row four days earlier. In a roundabout way, the newspaper tells the story of an upper-class man from Petoskey who shot Latham, perhaps inadvertently, because he was upset about the manners of his fellow partiers.
“Through the influence of good music, a number of the better class of those who enjoy dancing have been turning out” aboard the Keuka, the newspaper reported. “On Saturday night, Ellsworth Ballant of Petoskey came with a lady — some say two. Along about two a.m. some of the crowd had become noisy. Ballant had been annoyed, the story goes, because an East Jordanite would sit out dances with his dancing partner. Ballant ‘called’ the transgressive, and a quarrel was imminent.”
Bystanders tried to stop the melee, but it was Latham who stepped into the fray and was shot at close range in the belly. He was taken to Petoskey Hospital in critical condition. Ballant fled but was captured two days later. The historical society’s records grow cold in details about the fate of each man from there; it is apparently unknown whether Latham survived or what punishment awaited Ballant.
According to the newspaper article that described the shooting, there was consensus that when the barge’s owner, Capt. J.H. Gallagher, was absent and others took over management, the party barge was not as well run.
“The Keuka has had a full share of criticism since it was converted into a dancing pavilion but has weathered every gale while in charge of Capt. Gallagher, who is one of the owners,” the newspaper concluded. “When handled by less competent hands, the enterprise suffered severely in the minds of citizens generally.”
Upon learning of the shooting, the newspaper reported, Gallagher decided to shutter the Keuka indefinitely. Miles said he believes the Keuka never opened again.
SPECULATING ON A BARGE’S FATE
Another newspaper account describes a Charlevoix resident’s memory of being a child who watched from his bedroom window as people had a good time on Lake Charlevoix aboard the Keuka. The man recalled that he yearned to become an adult so that he would be able to go aboard. That was not to be. The seaworthy period of Keuka’s life was short-lived.
The Keuka sank in around 50 feet of water near the western shore of Lake Charlevoix on Sunday, Aug. 14, 1932.
In the years since, there’s been lots of speculation on what could have caused her demise. Some speculated she was sabotaged by the local chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union; others had it that her owners sought to rid themselves of tax liability.
In 1992, a Charlevoix resident who witnessed the sinking as a boy told the Courier that it happened quietly that morning, its bow beginning to sink, followed by the rest of the hull quietly slipping into the lake.
In the years following the sinking, there have been a lot of conflicting accounts about what happened before and after. One newspaper account reported that heavy rain fell in the days before the sinking, while another reported that the weather was fair and clear.
Another paper, just after the wreck, reported: “The Keuka was riding safely Saturday with no evidence that a few hours later would find her in the bottom of the lake. Nevertheless, something happened, and the boat went down. There was some cause for the changed conditions, but at this time the reason is indefinite and a subject of conjecture on the part of the public.”
As the years wore on, a consensus appears to have developed that the Keuka must not have been seaworthy and structural failure was the most likely explanation for her loss.
In 2003, Gallagher’s daughter wrote to the historical society and shared a firsthand recollection. Margarette Zeeley Schmit recalled that her father was away delivering mail to Beaver Island when the Keuka went under.
“I … was home alone when a call came from a lady at the Belvedere,” the woman wrote, referring to the exclusive neighborhood of cottages that look out over Lake Charlevoix from its western shore. “She told me to tell my dad that boat was sinking and it was spoiling their views.”
That was the end of the party for the Keuka, but prohibition would not last much longer, anyway. The beginning of the end in Michigan came in May 1933 when 3.2 percent beer was legalized.
ENTER THE TREASURE HUNTER
Soon after the Keuka vanished from the view over Lake Charlevoix, her masts were deemed a navigation hazard, and dynamite was used to knock them down.
For years, scavengers took souvenirs from the Keuka’s deck. The wooden rudder was brought to the surface and became the piano bar top at the Weathervane Restaurant, a relic that’s since been sold, its whereabouts now unknown, Miles said.
In the 1960s, a swaggering treasure hunter and entrepreneur wanted to recover the Keuka in what he hoped would be the first of many shipwreck recoveries. Jim Sawtelle, 37 years old and deemed “husky” by a local newspaper profile written at the time, had just opened a store in Charlevoix — the Treasure Cove — that sold furniture made from wood recovered from shipwrecks; Sawtelle described himself as a friend of Jacques Cousteau and modeled himself after the adventurer and explorer.
He’d developed a new method he hoped would make possible the recovery of shipwrecks throughout the Great Lakes.
Sawtelle planed to raise the Keuka by filling it with Styrofoam pellets manufactured by Dow Chemical. At the time, the material was a novelty and described in newspaper accounts as the stuff used to make disposable coffee cups.
Sawtelle had also just purchased the 126-foot Aspen, a former Coast Guard buoy tender, and he planned to use computer calculations to determine how many pellets it would take to raise the wreck. To recover the Keuka, Sawtelle estimated it would take 15,000 pounds, figuring in some extra just to be sure. He named his shipwreck recovery venture InnerSpace.
Observers thought Sawtelle might be onto something. One newspaper reported, “If the system works, untold fortunes lie waiting for InnerSpace Tech on the bottom of the Great Lakes, where hundreds of vessels have come to grief over the years, many with precious cargos.”
A 1966 Grand Rapids Press feature described in detail the planned 10-day Keuka project and estimated the value of treasure to be found around the Great Lakes at the time to be worth $800 million.
Because of the Keuka’s perch in just 50 feet of water in the confines of an inland lake, Sawtelle believed the barge was an ideal one to test his system. Later, Sawtelle imagined he would devise more elaborate schemes to go after larger, heavier wrecks that had settled in much deeper and less protected water.
As if he was a student of Buckminster Fuller, Sawtelle planned to build an 8-by-11-foot underwater chamber that could be used as a base for divers as they spent up to 15 days working to free shipwrecks from their undersea holds.
“Inside the chamber, divers will breathe a combination of oxygen and helium, and cook, eat and sleep under auto-camper conditions,” a newspaper reported.
Those plans were not to be. Sawtelle’s scheme to raise the Keuka was not successful, and Sawtelle's plans, like the man himself, vanished from the pages of newspapers soon after.
TODAY, A DIVING TREASURE
Those days of seeing shipwrecks as bountiful troves are long gone.
But Greg MacMaster, a diver, meteorologist, former state representative and owner of a video production company, is a proponent of underwater shipwreck preserves in Michigan.
MacMaster said the way people view shipwrecks has changed. In the 1960s, they were thought of as resources to be exploited; today, they are considered resources to be preserved.
MacMaster said that because the Keuka rests in an inland lake rather than open Great Lakes water, and because the top of her structure is only 17 feet underwater, the Keuka is a good dive for people who are training to become certified divers.
The relatively gentle waters of Lake Charlevoix also ensure that the Keuka is sheltered from ice and wave action that would deteriorate its structure more rapidly if it had sunk in the open water of Lake Michigan.
“It is excellent for dives of all levels,” MacMaster said. “We’ll go inside the hull. There are a few spots where it’s really difficult to get your gear through, so we practice life-saving skills, getting from one side of the ship to the other.”