Seek­ing sanc­tu­ary for ship­wrecks

As many as 100 or more wa­tery graves off Wis­con­sin may get fed­eral pro­tec­tion

Chicago Tribune - - FRONT PAGE - By Tony Briscoe

SHEBOYGAN, Wis. — Af­ter a year of scour­ing the depths of Lake Michi­gan with a sonare­quipped fish­ing boat, Steve Radovan fi­nally got a hit on the grayscale mon­i­tor in the cap­tain’s cabin in May 2016.

The 71-year-old ship­wreck en­thu­si­ast pow­ered down the Dis­cov­ery’s en­gines and dropped a wa­ter­proof cam­era at­tached to a rope into roughly 300 feet of wa­ter. The images re­vealed a three-masted barken­tine, cov­ered in mus­sels and al­gae but ly­ing on the bot­tom still largely in­tact. Af­ter re­port­ing the find­ing to the state of Wis­con­sin, he learned the foundered ship was the Mo­jave.

With a cargo of 19,500 bushels of wheat, the ship set sail from Chicago en route to Buffalo, N.Y., in 1864. The Mo­jave was spot­ted by the crew of a pass­ing ship as it dropped into a trough of stormy wa­ters. A small boat and cabin doors be­long­ing to the lost ship were later re­cov­ered on the east­ern shore of Lake Michi­gan, but the ves­sel lay deep be­low the sur­face for over a cen­tury.

“This is the stuff the mov-

iemak­ers dream of. This is just like it was when it sank to the bot­tom,” Radovan said with a grin, watch­ing the cam­era’s images from his home of­fice. “No hu­man has seen this ship since 1864.”

For more than a cen­tury, sink­ing ships claimed thou­sands of lives, bur­nish­ing Lake Michi­gan’s rep­u­ta­tion as be­ing among the most dan­ger­ous wa­ters to nav­i­gate. Its no­to­ri­ety as the dead­li­est of the Great Lakes is ev­i­dent from an ex­pan­sive grave­yard of ship­wrecks span­ning the shore­line of Wis­con­sin — a tes­ta­ment to the per­ils taken on by crews and pas­sen­gers who nav­i­gated the wa­ters in the 19th and 20th cen­turies.

Un­der a new push by the Na­tional Oceanic and At­mo­spheric Ad­min­is­tra­tion, the ghostly col­lec­tion of sunken ves­sels could be­come the first na­tional marine sanc­tu­ary in Lake Michi­gan and the sec­ond in the Great Lakes. NOAA is ex­pected to make a fi­nal de­ci­sion by next year, then Wis­con­sin Gov. Scott Walker and Congress are to re­view the pro­posal.

Ad­vo­cates say time is of the essence if the pub­lic is to view and study the wrecks be­cause their struc­tural in­tegrity is en­dan­gered by ze­bra mus­sels, an in­va­sive species known for its propen­sity to cling to ob­jects un­der­wa­ter and rapidly re­pro­duce.

The mus­sels can be can­cer­ous, as ev­i­denced by what hap­pened to the Gallinip­per, a fur trad­ing ship that went down in 1851 and re­mained in pris­tine con­di­tion on the lake floor for more than a cen­tury.

“If it was raised, it could sail again,” said Bren­don Bail­lod, a Great Lakes mar­itime his­to­rian. “But it be­came so en­crusted and caked in ze­bra mus­sels it started to col­lapse. So, in a sense, there’s an ur­gency to find­ing these wrecks now, be­cause in 10 years, they could start dis­ap­pear­ing.”

While the sheer num­ber of sunken ves­sels makes Wis­con­sin’s slice of Lake Michi­gan stand out, the site is also renowned for the re­mark­ably sound con­di­tion of many downed ships. Fif­teen wrecks known to re­searchers are vir­tu­ally in­tact, and 18 are listed on the Na­tional Reg­is­ter of His­toric Places, per pre­lim­i­nary reports. Divers have found many with masts still stand­ing, un­breached hulls, and even one with nau­ti­cal charts still stowed in the draw­ers of the wheel­house — some­thing that would be un­likely in ocean wa­ters.

“Cold, fresh wa­ter,” said Russ Green, NOAA re­gional co­or­di­na­tor. “The fact that it’s salt-free helps pre­serve iron and wood, and the cold wa­ter is like a big freezer that acts against de­te­ri­o­ra­tion.”

The pro­posed 1,075-acre site off­shore of Man­i­towoc, Sheboygan and Ozau­kee coun­ties con­tains 37 known ship­wrecks dat­ing from the 1830s through the early 1900s. Re­searchers say the area could be home to as many as 80 other undis­cov­ered wrecks.

“These ship­wrecks re­ally tell us the his­tory of how ship­ping was the engine of the Amer­i­can econ­omy,” Green said. “There’s a huge legacy of risk, some­times tragedy, per­sonal sto­ries of in­no­va­tion, en­trepreneur­ship — all locked into this pro­posed area.”

The pop­u­la­tion explosion of ze­bra mus­sels that threat­ens to de­stroy the sunken ves­sels has, iron­i­cally, made it eas­ier to dis­cover and explore the wrecks. One ze­bra mus­sel can fil­ter a liter of wa­ter a day, so once-plen­ti­ful micro­organ­isms like plank­ton, which clouded the wa­ters, have been dec­i­mated.

Since the in­tro­duc­tion of ze­bra mus­sels in 1990, un­der­wa­ter vis­i­bil­ity that once was 5 to 10 feet is now 80 to 100 feet, ac­cord­ing to ex­perts. It isn’t un­com­mon for one or two ship­wrecks to be found each year, with some spot­ted by satel­lite imag­ing or low-fly­ing air­craft.

With the im­proved wa­ter clar­ity, the Wis­con­sin His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety wants to help more peo­ple view the wrecks by es­tab­lish­ing a wa­ter trail of shal­low-wa­ter ship­wrecks that can be seen by pad­dle board­ers, kayak­ers and snorkel­ers.

On a re­cent af­ter­noon, Ta­mara Thom­sen, a state mar­itime ar­chae­ol­o­gist, pre­pared to sur­vey the J.M. All­mendinger, a wooden steamer that ran aground near Me­quon, where it was even­tu­ally pul­ver­ized by waves. Seated on the edge of her Bos­ton Whaler in a heavy-duty dive suit, she took a cou­ple of airy breaths from her oxy­gen tank, placed one hand over her gog­gles and the other atop her head, and fell back­ward into the wa­ter.

About 15 feet be­neath the sur­face, a tape mea­sure lay atop the ship’s skele­ton, stretch­ing 94 feet across the lake bot­tom. The as­sem­blage of wooden planks was speck­led with ze­bra mus­sels and fuzzy green al­gae. Nearby, a long, slen­der boiler that once pow­ered the ves­sel lay on the rocky lake bot­tom.

“It’s like Pick-Up Sticks ship­wrecks, here,” Thom­sen said. “You’re try­ing to fig­ure out what it was be­fore. Then, you’re like, ‘Oh, I get it. Those are the walls where the deck col­lapsed and slid over here.’ ”

For hours at a time, Thom­sen pho­tographed the wreck­age as other divers drew what they saw on un­der­wa­ter slates and scrawled mea­sure­ments in hopes of cre­at­ing a scaled ren­der­ing of the ship. The His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety’s work cat­a­logs ship­build­ing prac­tices that were unique to the Great Lakes and have been lost over the gen­er­a­tions be­cause masters built by rule of thumb or passed their tech­niques down to ap­pren­tices.

The most com­mon ships in the po­ten­tial sanc­tu­ary are 19th-cen­tury schooners — nim­ble sail­boats with two or more masts, sim­i­lar to a clas­sic pi­rate ship. Per­haps the area’s most fa­bled schooner was a shabby old barge called the Rouse Sim­mons but more pop­u­larly known as the Christ­mas Tree Ship.

On Nov. 22, 1912, the ship left Michi­gan’s Up­per Penin­sula for Chicago with a cache of ev­er­greens for Christ­mas.

A group of lum­ber­jacks hitched a ride to join their fam­i­lies on what was sup­posed to be the Rouse Sim­mons’ fi­nal voy­age of the sea­son. It turned out to be its last ever.

The ship cap­sized about 5 miles off­shore of Two Rivers, Wis., and res­cue ships were un­able to find it in a snow­storm. Decades later, His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety divers found a Christ­mas tree still up­right

on the ship’s bow.

Many times, it’s the con­tents of a ship that help iden­tify it and tell its story. Af­ter the Wis­con­sin Depart­ment of Nat­u­ral Re­sources de­tected a steel steamship about 16 miles north­east of Port Wash­ing­ton, mar­itime ar­chae­ol­o­gists dis­cov­ered hun­dreds of an­tique cars in the hull — iden­ti­fy­ing it as the Sen­a­tor, a car ferry that had left Mil­wau­kee for Detroit.

Nav­i­gat­ing through dense fog, a pass­ing ship rammed the Sen­a­tor, send­ing its crew and cargo of 268 Nash au­to­mo­biles to the bot­tom of the lake on Hal­loween 1929, days af­ter the his­toric stock mar­ket crash.

It was these kinds of sto­ries that hooked Radovan.

When he be­gan div­ing in the mid-1970s, the hobby was in its in­fancy and akin to fringe sports like moun­tain climb­ing. He joined a group of divers who grad­u­ated from search­ing for bot­tles in in­land lakes to hunt­ing for ship­wrecks. Two were for­mer mil­i­tary en­gi­neers, in­clud­ing one who owned a 63-foot boat equipped with sonar equip­ment from a Navy de­stroyer.

With a green screen ping­ing for ship­wrecks, the group felt a queasy mix of ex­hil­a­ra­tion and dread when pre­par­ing for a dive in those early days. Radovan, dressed in a wet­suit and tanks with enough oxy­gen for sev­eral min­utes, re­luc­tantly plunged into the murky abyss.

“It was scary back then, and a lot dif­fer­ent than it is now,” Radovan said. “When I dove the Wal­ter B. Allen in 165 feet of wa­ter, the vis­i­bil­ity was like 5 to 10 feet . ... I was afraid, be­cause I knew fish­er­men al­ways caught their nets on these things, and you al­ways had the thought in your mind, ‘Am I gonna swim into one of these nets?’ You only have a cou­ple min­utes down there, so you al­ways had a lit­tle bit of ter­ror in your mind.”

More than 40 years later, Radovan is a part of a fra­ter­nity of boaters with pricey radar or sonar equip­ment who con­tinue to nav­i­gate his­toric ship­ping routes in search of wrecks. In his work­shop, he has a grid map with stick­ers cov­er­ing the square miles he’s searched in the wa­ters off Sheboygan — a search he in­tends to ex­haust in hopes of boost­ing the area’s promi­nence as a po­ten­tial marine sanc­tu­ary.

Radovan said he has found six ship­wrecks in­de­pen­dently and nine with others. The sil­ver-haired mariner, tan from his days nav­i­gat­ing boats from the fly bridge, has his sights set on at least two others in the re­gion.

An ar­ray of ship­wreck an­tiques are on dis­play at his home: a table made from the hatch of the Prins Willem V, a wheel from the Roscinco and a steam gauge from the SS Pe­wabic. Dur­ing a din­ner party, he opened a bot­tle of em­bossed wine he brought up from the Pe­wabic, only to drink what tasted like vine­gar and left every­one’s tongues black. As a young man, Radovan and his col­leagues were ea­ger to bring items up and show them off to the lo­cal newspapers to spread the news of this lost his­tory, he said.

Others, how­ever, were tak­ing items out of the wa­ter for profit, given that some wrecks went down be­fore the ad­vent of pa­per money and con­tained gold and sil­ver coins. Wis­con­sin statute even­tu­ally pro­hib­ited the re­moval or dis­tur­bance of items on sunken ships, which, in some cases, in­cludes hu­man re­mains. It’s a law Radovan now be­lieves is nec­es­sary.

“These ship­wrecks were be­ing stripped,” Radovan said. “Ev­ery­thing that wasn’t nailed down was taken. All of these things are ba­si­cally time cap­sules. And this was his­tory, but it was go­ing in every­one’s base­ment . ... I’m of the phi­los­o­phy let it stay where it is. Let ar­chae­ol­o­gists study it, and let the next gen­er­a­tion of divers look at it on the bot­tom.”

If the area be­came a na­tional marine sanc­tu­ary, fed­eral reg­u­la­tion would pre­vent other un­in­tended dam­age by pro­hibit­ing grap­pling and an­chor­ing at ship­wreck sites.

To un­der­stand why so many wrecks came to rest in the area, it’s help­ful to con­sider how dra­mat­i­cally ship­ping has changed.

One of the big­gest rea­sons was sim­ply the amount of traf­fic cir­cu­lat­ing around the western Great Lakes states. While mod­ern car­ri­ers can haul 80,000 tons in a sin­gle trip, more than a cen­tury ago many smaller ves­sels car­ry­ing smaller loads were re­quired to move goods.

“You could think of it like our mod­ern-day free­way sys­tem,” said Bail­lod, the mar­itime his­to­rian. “If you looked out from on the lake from Mil­wau­kee, it wouldn’t be un­com­mon to see 200 or 300 ships on the hori­zon.”

Ships travers­ing Lake Michi­gan sank for any num­ber of rea­sons: storms, col­li­sions, fires, me­chan­i­cal fail­ures. Ship cap­tains didn’t have the lux­ury of weather fore­cast­ing, which left crews es­pe­cially sus­cep­ti­ble to pow­er­ful au­tumn and win­ter storms.

“In Oc­to­ber and Novem­ber, cities needed coal and lum­ber for heat­ing, and that’s also when crops needed to be har­vested,” Bail­lod said. “They trav­eled west to east to places like Buffalo, Cleve­land and Detroit, and they made these trips at a bad time. And that’s why the rate of ship­wrecks was so high. Every sin­gle year, it was like a sea­son of ‘Dead­li­est Catch.’ It was the cost of do­ing busi­ness.”

Today, the sto­ries of those who per­ished on voy­ages is told by a suite of mu­se­ums in Wis­con­sin, in­clud­ing Port Wash­ing­ton’s Port Ex­ploreum. The nau­ti­cal-themed mu­seum’s new se­ries on ship­wrecks fea­tures an ex­hibit on the burn­ing and sink­ing of the SS At­lanta, a Goodrich pas­sen­ger steamer (the mod­ern-day equiv­a­lent to a Grey­hound bus).

On March 18, 1906, 65 peo­ple were aboard the At­lanta when it left Sheboygan for Mil­wau­kee. The ship caught fire and sank a few miles north of Port Wash­ing­ton in 17 feet of wa­ter. All but one per­son were res­cued by a nearby tug­boat.

If the area is fed­er­ally des­ig­nated, the Wis­con­sin-Lake Michi­gan Na­tional Marine Sanc­tu­ary would be the first since the Thun­der Bay Na­tional Marine Sanc­tu­ary was cre­ated in 2000. Thun­der Bay, a 4,300square-mile area in north­east­ern Lake Huron, holds the re­mains of 100 known ship­wrecks and has been nick­named “Ship­wreck Al­ley.” Some res­i­dents of Alpena, Mich., where the vis­i­tors cen­ter is lo­cated, were re­luc­tant to wel­come fed­eral in­ter­ven­tion. But now the north­ern Michi­gan city of 10,000 is serv­ing as a model to lead­ers of some Wis­con­sin coastal cities, in­clud­ing Sheboygan Mayor Mike Van­der­steen.

“Alpena branded them­selves the marine sanc­tu­ary of the Great Lakes. The city sold sanc­tu­ary soaps and ship­wrecks beers. It’s a small com­mu­nity about 75 miles away from a ma­jor high­way, but now they see 100,000 vis­i­tors a year. And the shell of a build­ing that used to be the pa­per mill is now the vis­i­tors cen­ter,” Van­der­steen said.

Wis­con­sin’s sit­u­a­tion could prove more chal­leng­ing, con­sid­er­ing that the pro­posed sanc­tu­ary en­com­passes a num­ber of lake­front com­mu­ni­ties, all vy­ing for vis­i­tors, Van­der­steen said. But a network of cul­tural part­ners is in place.

In ad­di­tion to the Port Ex­ploreum in Port Wash­ing­ton, Man­i­towoc is home to the Wis­con­sin Mar­itime Mu­seum, a marine her­itage mu­seum with tours of an ad­ja­cent re­stored World War II sub­ma­rine; Two Rivers has the Rogers Street Fish­ing Vil­lage, a his­toric dis­trict where vis­i­tors can learn about the com­mer­cial fish­ing in­dus­try; and Space­port Sheboygan is a sci­encethemed fa­cil­ity that could serve the in­no­va­tion and tech­nol­ogy as­pects, Van­der­steen said.

A na­tional marine sanc­tu­ary des­ig­na­tion could bring hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars in fed­eral re­sources an­nu­ally. NOAA re­searchers are ex­pected to spear­head re­search and have al­ready be­gun us­ing sonar to map parts of the po­ten­tial sanc­tu­ary’s lakebed, which could turn up more undis­cov­ered wrecks.

To Radovan, the im­por­tance of pass­ing down the his­tory and lessons from the wrecks is key.

He hopes the des­ig­na­tion can hook a new gen­er­a­tion with the same fer­vor for re­dis­cov­er­ing his­tory he had as a 20-some­thing green­horn diver.

In a sense, it was never about the splin­tered tim­ber or man­gled steel ly­ing at the bot­tom of the lake, he said.

“It isn’t about the ship, it­self,” Radovan said. “The ship is only a tool to tell the story. But the story is all about the peo­ple who were in­volved in these ships. I just wish we could make peo­ple as pas­sion­ate about them as I am.”

“These ship­wrecks re­ally tell us the his­tory of how ship­ping was the engine of the Amer­i­can econ­omy. There’s a huge legacy of risk, some­times tragedy, per­sonal sto­ries of in­no­va­tion, en­trepreneur­ship — all locked into this pro­posed area.” — Russ Green, NOAA re­gional co­or­di­na­tor

CHRIS WALKER/CHICAGO TRIBUNE Divers from the Wis­con­sin His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety last month mea­sure the J.M. All­mendinger, which sank in 1895 near Port Wash­ing­ton, Wis.

CEN­TER FOR ARCHIVAL COL­LEC­TIONS, BOWL­ING GREEN STATE UNIVER­SITY The All­mendinger broke up in the waves af­ter run­ning aground and now lies 15 feet down. Its boiler can be seen on the lake bot­tom.

A pad­dle boarder plies Lake Michi­gan last month near the wreck­age of the SS At­lanta, which sank off the coast of Cedar Grove, Wis., in March 1906.

CHRIS WALKER/CHICAGO TRIBUNE Ship­wreck en­thu­si­ast and sanc­tu­ary backer Steve Radovan, of Sheboygan, Wis., has been in­volved in the dis­cov­ery of 15 sunken ves­sels in Lake Michi­gan.

CHRIS WALKER/CHICAGO TRIBUNE The hull of the Lot­tie Cooper, a ship that sank in 1894, is pre­served in a park in Sheboygan. A na­tional marine sanc­tu­ary is be­ing pro­posed.

CHRIS WALKER/CHICAGO TRIBUNE Mar­itime ar­chae­ol­o­gist Ta­mara Thom­sen of the Wis­con­sin His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety re­turns from a dive to ex­am­ine the steamer J.M. All­mendinger.



In 1910, snow and ice coat the Rouse Sim­mons, aka the Christ­mas Tree Ship, two years be­fore it cap­sized. When found be­low decades later, it still had an up­right tree aboard.

WIS­CON­SIN MAR­ITIME MU­SEUM COL­LEC­TION The At­lanta left Sheboygan, Wis., for Mil­wau­kee with 65 peo­ple aboard on what would be its fi­nal voy­age. All but one were res­cued by a tug­boat af­ter it caught fire and went down.

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