The Sunken Ore of Lake Coeur d’Alene

Every body of water holds history and buried secrets, some may be dark or tantalizingly lucrative, others just let the trash and junk tell their stories. Lake Coeur d’Alene is no exception.

When you hear of shipwrecks and sunken treasure, the mind automatically drifts to thoughts of pirates and the deep sea. But there is a rumor of a different kind of treasure sitting at the bottom of Lake Coeur d’Alene.

Lake Coeur d’Alene was a hotbed of steamboat activity in the late 1880s. At one time, the steamboat trade on Lake Coeur d’Alene was the greatest of any lake west of the Great Lakes. Lead and silver ore transportation made up the bulk of the steamboat traffic. D.C. Corbin built a narrow-gauge railroad to carry ore from the mines of the Silver Valley to Lake Coeur D’Alene. Two gold rush-era steamers, the Coeur d’Alene and the General Sherman, Corbin converted into ore carriers. Following the success of those boats, he built a third ship named the Kootenai to serve as an icebreaker in winter months. His system was then purchased by the Northern Pacific railroad in 1888.

In fall of 1889 two steamboats loaded with 300 tons of ore traveled downstream from Old Mission, just as the river was beginning to freeze. Captain Nisbett had difficulty navigating through the ice with two ore carriers in tow. He tied one to the river bank and continued on with the other. After the steamboat Kootenai crossed the bar at the mouth of the river into the ice-free lake around midnight, most of the crew went to bed. Fireman Fred Wilson stood watch, his main duty was to oil cylinders and answer any bells. After an uneventful watch, he happened to look out the window to see the barge riding uncomfortably low on the port side. Wilson reported to the sleeping captain, the engines were halted and a careful effort was made to head for shore about a quarter of a mile past McDonald’s Point.

The valuable ore never made it to shore. About 300 feet from shore, the barge lunged to port and the ore on that side toppled into the lake. With the tons or weight gone from the port side of the barge, the still-loaded starboard side plunged down and dumped the other half of the ore into the lake.

When the ship finally reached the shore, the crew rushed onto the barge to see only a scattering of ore across the deck. Fifteen thousand dollars of silver ore had disappeared beneath the waters of Lake Coeur d’Alene.

Efforts were made to recover the treasure. The Northern Pacific Railroad brought in a diver, who determined the ore had sunk to a depth of between 60-100 feet and the cost of recovery would be more than it was worth.

This left the ore a fair prize for anyone who could raise it. Fred Wilson, who knew the exact spot, teamed up with another man to try their hand at dredging up the ore sacks. Both quit their jobs, collected some basic equipment, and built themselves a log raft for the task. Working at it for three or four days, they successfully raised an ore truck, a locomotive headlight and plenty of canvas chunks--but little to no ore. In 1951 the story was brought back to life by a local newspaper columnist Clement Wilkins. An old steamboat engineer who recalled the spot Wilson had often pointed out shared that he thought that use of modern diving equipment might make the salvage comparatively easy. A local salvage diver made plans to recover the treasure--but landed in jail on unrelated matters and never made the dive.

In the summer of 1985, a Seattle dive team searched near McDonald Point, but found nothing. As much as 10 feet of silt has built up over the site since the sinking. No “X” marks the spot, and nobody is left that can give exact directions. But we do know that a fortune in silver lies, somewhere, beneath the cold waters of Lake Coeur d’Alene.