The Search for Pharmacist Joseph Pearl and the Shipwreck of the Chicora


Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be a pharmacist in the 1800’s.  No computers, no chain stores etc.  Certainly, you’d have a soda fountain and customers that would “hang out” and socialize at your pharmacy.  That’s exactly what the situation was at Joseph Pearl’s pharmacy in 1895 and the day that John Pharmacist Joseph PearlGraham, president of the Graham and Morton Transportation company came to his pharmacy looking for his ship’s clerk and former U.S. Marshal, James Clarke. 

It was January 1895 and Lake Michigan was partially frozen and the shipping season was over.  James Clarke was the clerk on the Chicora, a Lake Michigan passenger freighter that ran between St. Joseph, Michigan and Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  The Chicora was laid up for the season and so Clarke wasn’t working and liked to spend some of his time down at the pharmacy.  In fact, he and pharmacist Joseph Pearl were considered to be good friends.

The owner of the Chicora had a problem.  Freight was piling up in Milwaukee and he was being pressured to get it moved.  Because of the harsh winter conditions on the Great Lakes, shipping usually ceased in the winter.  But his package freighter, the Chicora had actually been designed for these conditions.  Still it was a surprise that Graham wanted a run in these conditions and it was going to be difficult to get a crew of sailors willing to risk these harsh conditions on the Lakes.  Clarke agreed to go as long as he could take his pharmacist friend, Joseph Pearl along.  Graham agreed and continued to round up the crew.

Preparations were made and the Chicora was awaken from her winter lay up and on Saturday January 19, 1895 she left St. Joseph Michigan on a run to Milwaukee with a load of freight and a single passenger, pharmacist Joseph Pearl.   Still, Graham was worried about the run.  On Sunday from his office and lookout high on a hill in St. Joseph he could tell the weather was deteriorating and the barometer that he monitored was dropping, a sure sign of bad weather. In addition to concerns for his men’s safety, Graham and Morton had a lot of their own personal wealth tied up in the ship and its loss would be costly.   Meanwhile in Milwaukee, the Chicora was unloaded, refueled with coal and reloaded for her return run to St. Joseph on Monday morning.


On the morning of  January 21, Mr. Graham again checked his barometer and it was still falling and conditions on the Lake had deteriorated.  He decided to telegraph Milwaukee and order the Chicora held over until weather conditions improved.  The telegraph message arrived in Milwaukee and was delivered by courier to the docks but it was too late and the Chicora had already sailed.  Some newspaper accounts claim the telegraph missed the ship by only 15 minutes.  Others say the telegraph boy could see the smoke of the ship’s coal fired boiler as she sailed over the horizon.   In any event, the message just missed captain Stines and because this was well before the advent of radio, there was no way to reach them.  They were on their own.

  The Chicora
This was the last time the Chicora, a crew of  22 men and passenger Joseph Pearl were ever seen.   They never made it to St. Joseph! While no one know what happened for sure, we can speculate that based on the weather conditions and some eyewitness accounts that the steamer made it to within a few miles of the Michigan shore. 

Lake Michigan rarely freezes over but ice often forms along the shore and may extend out as far as 10 miles into the lake.  By the time the Chicora would have reached the Michigan side of the lake a fierce winter storm was blowing.  A number of eyewitnesses claim to have heard distress whistle calls from the lake and possibly even a boiler explosion.

After the Chicora was overdue, a number of searches were conducted and wreckage was found on the Lake Michigan ice.  In the spring, the masts and some of the cargo washed up on shore but no bodies were ever found.  Pearl’s widow placed a marker in the St. Joseph Cemetery as a memorial. His stone is inscribed with a verse of poem by a local writer and a portion of which is below.

Here’s a sigh for the Chicora, for the broken, sad Chicora.
Here’s a tear for those who followed her beneath the tossing wave.


  As a pharmacist, scuba diver and member of the Southwest Michigan Underwater Preserve (SWMUP), I first learned about the tragic story of the Chicora in 1999 from Valarie VanHeest, a diver and then president of SWMUP.  For over a hundred years the story of the Chicora has been retold and nothing other than a little wreckage that washed ashore, has been found.  The disappearance of the Chicora,  and virtually without a trace, is one of the great mysteries of the Great Lakes because it was built extra sturdy for winter service.   For these reasons, the Chicora is often referred to as a “Ghost Ship” or the “Titanic of the Great Lakes.”   Many descendants of the men lost still live in St. Joseph and would like to see the mystery solved and the shipwreck and grave site of their departed relatives located. 

  In 1999 SWMUP began an annual underwater search for the wreck site using sophisticated side scan sonar and the services of Dave Trotter, a noted great lakes shipwreck searcher.  After three years of  searches and in 2001 a wooden steamer of the right size and era was located in 260ft of water and approximately 15 miles off shore.  The depth and location however presented numerous challenges.  Dives to this depth  are extremely dangerous and require the special training and the use of Trimix gas (Oxygen, Helium, Nitrogen) along with support and safety divers in the water at the same time.  For these reasons, both remote robotic cameras and Trimix divers were used to photograph and attempt to identify the wreck. 

Further research however indicates that this shipwreck is the Ackley, a similar size and era vessel that plied the same waters.  The Chicora meant a lot to the residents of the then much smaller town of  St. Joseph and its loss and the loss of the 22 men from this town was a major blow.  Even today, many of the residents will relate and recall stories about the Chicora.  Maybe someday we’ll find it.

Joseph Pearl carried a rifle on board the Chicora’s last voyage and purportedly to do some target practice during the voyage. If this rifle is found on a shipwreck in this area it will help confirm the identity of the Chicora and final resting place of pharmacist Joseph Pearl.  The shipwreck hunters of SWMUP have recently reorganized under the name and will be continuing the search to solve this 100 year old mystery.