SHIPWRECK hunters are hoping to salvage £16million worth of gold from a vessel that was lost in a storm over 169 years ago.
The rusting remains of The Westmoreland – packed with a cache of rare 19th-century whiskey and gold coins – went undiscovered for over a century.
It sank to the depths of Lake Michigan on December 17, 1854, tragically taking 17 souls down along with it.
The location of the shipwreck, 180ft beneath the waters of Platte Bay, was only discovered in 2010 after 156 years.
Despite being brimming with treasures, it's forbidden to recover artifacts from Great Lakes wrecks without a permit.
But talks are now underway to salvage the spoils from the Westmoreland, according to shipwreck hunter Ross Richardson.
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After incredibly tracking down the vessel, he has been desperate to dive inside the "underwater museum."
The wreckage expert said the Westmoreland is loaded with "perfectly-preserved relics" with historical and monetary value.
Ross explained: "We are in the beginning stages of discussing a salvage operation to recover the whiskey casks and possibly other artifacts.
"The Westmoreland is an underwater museum, filled with perfectly-preserved relics from the 1850s, and preserving them for public display would be a worthy cause.
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"She is one of the most intact and best-preserved shipwrecks from the 1850s on the planet."
He hinted that a regional distillery was "extremely interested" in salvaging the precious whiskey barrels for tasting and selling.
"The genetic makeup of corn was much different in 1854 and may have had a different taste to today's corn," Ross added.
Eerie underwater images of the shipwreck, snapped by diver Chris Roxburgh, depict the decaying Westmoreland sitting upright on the bottom of the water.
She is instantly recognisable from the iconic "hogging arches" running along both sides of the ship.
The spooky snaps show the vessel is largely intact despite being a prisoner to the seabed in the icy water for over 150 years.
Ross said he was only able to locate the wreck after "about a decade's worth of research" and arming himself with the latest sonar technology.
He said: "The area where the Westmoreland sank was not flat and smooth, like the majority of Lake Michigan's bottom.
"It was full of underwater sand dunes and cliffs, making early search efforts very difficult.
"Around 2008, there was a breakthrough in side scan sonar technology, and an affordable and capable sonar unit was made available to the public.
"I was an early adopter of this technology and it's perfect for searching the area where the Westmoreland sank.
"Many searchers were in the right area, but lacked the right tools for the job."
The Westmoreland was bound for Mackinac Island before she sadly sank – carrying some 280 barrels of whiskey to supply soldiers along with winter supplies.
Ross said: "It made life very hard for the army when she did not arrive."
The ship's crew were en route to a fort that watched over the meeting point of Lake Huron and Lake Michigan.
It is thought that the hoard of gold coins could have been the troop's pay packet – which could now be worth up to £16million.
Ross suspects the double eagle pieces would prove a hit with coin collectors and could fetch a fortune at auction.
He continued: "The gold coins would be worth about a million dollars if we melted them down and sold them.
"The true value is the numismatic value of these coins, which could realistically be more than $20million today."
The salvage operation would be focused on retrieving the whiskey – but it will be no easy feat.
The challenging location of the shipwreck has left hunters scratching their heads as they struggle to determine the best route inside.
Ross said: "It's a difficult dive since there is no rope or buoy attached to the ship and it's almost 200ft deep.
"The water temp was freezing cold at 34F (1C). The gold and whiskey is deeper in the wreck, in the hold or cabins.
"And the deck is partially collapsed, so getting deeper into vessel is hard."
But he still holds out hope that the Westmoreland's treasures will one day see the surface again.
The shipwreck enthusiast added: "Eventually, yes. But, we are a long way, maybe decades, from making that happen.
"Only time will tell if the Westmoreland will share her secrets with us."
Although the vessel's battle with the storm claimed 17 souls, the same number of people survived the incident.
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Those that made it ashore reportedly faced a walk of some 40 miles to the nearest town.
Ross details his quest to find the wreck in his book, The Search for the Westmoreland.
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