Milwaukee Magazine - - Culture - by ZACH BROOKE

The wa­ters off Wis­con­sin’s east coast hold trea­sures known and yet-undis­cov­ered, with hun­dreds of sunken ships rest­ing for decades – some for well over a cen­tury – on Lake Michi­gan’s floor. A fed­eral push to cre­ate es­sen­tially an un­der­wa­ter na­tional park would pro­tect an es­pe­cially in­ter­est­ing stretch of wa­ter, send­ing divers and re­searchers down un­der and cre­at­ing coastal ca­chet for lake­side har­bor towns.

run­ning par­al­lel at first with the grass cov­ered ce­ment slab of Coal Dock Park ad­ja­cent to the ma­rina, then past the 80-foot break­wa­ter light and into the open wa­ters of Lake Michi­gan.

They’re rid­ing in a 28-foot alu­minum boat called the Molly V, which be­longs to Jitka Hanakova, the slim blond woman pi­lot­ing it down the coast­line. For years she’s run a sum­mer side busi­ness called Ship­wreck Ex­plor­ers that trans­ports cer­ti­fied divers out to the wa­tery gravesites of early Amer­i­can ship­ping ca­su­al­ties. Her dog, Deco (as in de­com­pres­sion), is also aboard the ves­sel.

A div­ing en­thu­si­ast her­self, Hanakova has as­sisted in the dis­cov­er­ies of two long-lost ves­sels lo­cated in Lake Michi­gan. First was the L.R. Doty, a 300-foot cargo ship the group found while act­ing on a tip from fish­er­men. She struck gold again with friends five years later when they lo­cated the lost steamer Alice E. Wilds that went down in 1892 af­ter col­lid­ing with an­other ves­sel.

“That was re­ally ex­cit­ing. That was a true dis­cov­ery, where we ac­tu­ally went to the li­brary and looked up a whole bunch of ar­ti­cles and doc­u­ments,” she says.

To­day, the divers will ex­plore just one of the 176 iden­ti­fied his­toric ship­wrecks hid­ing be­neath Wis­con­sin’s wa­ters. The Mid-Lake re­gion, where Hanakova and the divers are, is lit­tered with at least 37 wrecks and per­haps as many as 80. Eigh­teen are listed on the Na­tional Reg­is­ter of His­toric Places.

It’s this patch of lake that’s been at the cen­ter of an in­tense push, decades in the mak­ing, to be­come des­ig­nated as a Na­tional Ma­rine Sanc­tu­ary. And two-and-a-half years af­ter of­fi­cially be­ing nom­i­nated, that sta­tus is closer than ever. If it hap­pens, it could be a game changer for the re­gion, bring­ing fed­eral funds for re­search and con­ser­va­tion, and rais­ing the pro­file of the state’s lakeshore cities. Doubt­less, more divers in more boats would take to these wa­ters in a rush to dis­cover un­der­wa­ter as­sets that will key us in to more of our mar­itime his­tory. But lots would hap­pen on land, too, with the coastal towns from Me­quon north to Two Rivers ex­pected to reap a tourism wind­fall and be­come host to aca­demic re­searchers on what would in essence be a liq­uid na­tional park.

The North­erner it­self was once lost for more than a cen­tury. The last time any­one laid eyes upon it above the wa­ter­line was Novem­ber 29, 1868, as it limped away from Port Wash­ing­ton look­ing any­thing but his­toric. The day be­fore leav­ing Port Wash­ing­ton, the North­erner had cracked its hull as it loaded up with lum­ber. The cap­tain, An­dreas Ry­er­son, was able to keep it afloat by

jet­ti­son­ing its cargo, but he needed a tug to go any di­rec­tion be­sides down. Now, he had one: the Cuya­hoga. It wasn’t enough. Five miles south­east of Port Wash­ing­ton, the North­erner cap­sized and sank to the bot­tom of the lake.

Ry­er­son’s loss was Wis­con­sin’s gain, as the boat has iron­i­cally proven to be more lu­cra­tive un­der­wa­ter than float­ing atop it. The Chicago Scuba Club wouldn’t be up here now with­out it. An­chored 130 feet above the North­erner’s car­cass, the six men gather their un­der­wa­ter cam­eras and make the two-minute de­scent 130 feet be­low the sur­face. Hanakova and Deco stay on ship. She’s al­ready been down there.

“The hull is com­pletely in­tact. It’s a re­ally nice dive,” Hanakova says. “The mast is there. It’s fallen down and it’s lay­ing on its side. When I dove it the first time, I could only see maybe five feet ahead of me. Then I dove it five years later and I could see like 50 feet. The mus­sels re­ally clear it up.”

Like Yel­low­stone and Yosemite, na­tional ma­rine sanc­tu­ar­ies are se­lected for their beauty and im­por­tance, over­seen by a team of field re­searchers, pro­tected by fed­eral con­ser­va­tion ef­forts and used by sci­en­tists as liv­ing lab­o­ra­to­ries, and they play host to out­doorsy types on hol­i­day. Like the na­tional parks, na­tional ma­rine sanc­tu­ar­ies en­com­pass wide swaths of eco­log­i­cal di­ver­sity and are as dif­fer­ent from one an­other as De­nali is from the Ever­glades.

The U.S. Na­tional Ma­rine Sanc­tu­ary pro­gram be­gan in 1972 as a re­sponse to a string of high-pro­file eco­log­i­cal dis­as­ters. Three years ear­lier, a 10-day oil spill off the coast of Santa Bar­bara pumped an es­ti­mated 80,000 to 100,000 bar­rels of crude into the Pa­cific Ocean; around the same time the Cuya­hoga River caught fire in Cleve­land. Over­sight of the pro­gram was given to Na­tional Oceanic and At­mo­spheric Ad­min­is­tra­tion, or NOAA, it­self just two years re­moved from be­ing formed.

There are cur­rently 14 na­tional ma­rine sanc­tu­ar­ies in the United States and its ter­ri­to­ries. If ap­proved, the pro­posed Wis­con­sin-Lake Michi­gan sanc­tu­ary would be just the se­cond in the Great Lakes, join­ing Michi­gan’s Thun­der Bay lo­ca­tion. It would be­come only the third sanc­tu­ary es­tab­lished for cul­tural value in­stead of en­vi­ron­men­tal con­sid­er­a­tions. The pre­ferred bound­aries for Wis­con­sin-Lake Michi­gan

en­com­pass 875 square miles, ex­tend­ing 9 to 14 miles from shore.

In the case of Wis­con­sin-Lake Michi­gan pro­posal, that mostly means pro­tect­ing the sunken wrecks of yes­ter­year from loot­ers through en­force­ment of the Aban­doned Ship­wreck Act. Com­ple­ment­ing this mis­sion would be a strong pub­lic in­for­ma­tion cam­paign cel­e­brat­ing the area’s her­itage while high­light­ing its vul­ner­a­bil­ity.

The ear­li­est aware­ness that the wrecks scat­tered across the state’s lakebed were wor­thy of con­ser­va­tion ef­forts came in the 1960s and ’70s, ac­cord­ing to state ar­chae­ol­o­gist John Broi­hahn.

“Al­ready, in the mid-60s when scuba tech­nol­ogy orig­i­nated, there were peo­ple along the coast who rec­og­nized the his­tor­i­cal and recre­ational value of the wrecks. They were con­cerned that peo­ple were re­mov­ing stuff, or that wrecks would be dam­aged by ma­rina projects,” he says.

It wasn’t un­til 2007 that se­ri­ous dis­cus­sions for an ac­tual sanc­tu­ary be­gan in earnest. In­for­mal con­ver­sa­tions with NOAA led state mar­itime ar­chae­ol­o­gists to pro­duce a re­port ex­plor­ing sanc­tu­ary sta­tus. The doc­u­ment, “Wis­con­sin’s His­toric Ship­wrecks,” came out a year later and syn­the­sizes the sum of knowl­edge amassed by the ma­rine arche­ol­ogy di­vi­sion through­out its his­tory.

“Wis­con­sin was of in­ter­est to us. They have prob­a­bly the best un­der­wa­ter ar­chae­ol­ogy pro­gram in the coun­try,” says Ellen Brody, NOAA’s Great Lakes Re­gional Co­or­di­na­tor. But it had the mis­for­tune of pub­lish­ing the re­port af­ter NOAA de­clared a mora­to­rium on new sanc­tu­ar­ies. Wis­con­sin would have to wait years to ap­ply. When the ban fi­nally lifted in 2014, state of­fi­cials pounced.

Nom­i­na­tion pa­per­work was sub­mit­ted by Gov. Scott Walker in Novem­ber 2014 and in­cluded over 200 let­ters of sup­port from in­ter­ested par­ties. Un­der­scor­ing the broad base of sup­port for the unique­ness of the project, the packet in­cluded let­ters of sup­port from Sens. Ron John­son and Tammy Bald­win. A year later, the sanc­tu­ary was of­fi­cially pro­posed by then-Pres­i­dent Obama dur­ing a world ocean sum­mit in Chile.

“That Barack Obama, Scott Walker, Ron John­son and Tammy Bald­win all agreed on one thing … I don’t know if you’ll ever see that again,” says Manitowoc Mayor Justin Nick­els. He, like the may­ors of ev­ery mu­nic­i­pal­ity along the pro­posed sanc­tu­ary, sup­ports it, too.


pop­u­la­tion slightly over 10,000, Alpena, Michi­gan, doesn’t even crack the list of the top 175 largest mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties in the state, but it still easily claims the ti­tle of the big­gest town on the sun­rise side of North­ern Michi­gan. And it’s sur­pris­ingly bo­hemian, with laser tag, food trucks and a yoga stu­dio. It seems to punch above its weight, trend­wise. A fish­ing, lime­stone and ce­ment town, it rein­vents it­self ev­ery sum­mer as a tourist lo­cale.

Any ship go­ing to or from Mil­wau­kee via Lake Huron must pass by the city while nav­i­gat­ing the top of Michi­gan’s Lower Penin­sula. Head back in time and these wa­ter­ways be­come even more im­por­tant than they are now. It should come as no sur­prise, then, that this area con­tains hun­dreds, if not thou­sands of ship­wrecks ac­cu­mu­lat­ing over the years. Thun­der

Bay Na­tional Ma­rine Sanc­tu­ary ex­ists to pro­tect them. Ship­wreck Soda, brewed lo­cally, cel­e­brates them.

The first-in-the-Great-Lakes ma­rine sanc­tu­ary, once a hot­bed of con­tro­versy, has be­come an ob­ject of ad­mi­ra­tion in Wis­con­sin. Five years af­ter Thun­der Bay sanc­tu­ary opened, a re­gional study found it boosted sales in its tri-county re­gion by $92 mil­lion. Of­fi­cials in Port Wash­ing­ton, She­boy­gan, Manitowoc and Two Rivers are bank­ing on sim­i­lar ef­fects in their com­mu­ni­ties. Each city has taken steps to re-em­pha­size its mar­itime roots in a bid to win NOAA in­vest­ment.

Then there are the aca­demic pos­si­bil­i­ties. The Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin Sea Grant In­sti­tute is an­other NOAA-funded pro­gram that spon­sors re­search part­ner­ships be­tween fed­eral agen­cies and state uni­ver­si­ties. And just south of the pro­posed sanc­tu­ary is the School of Fresh­wa­ter Sciences at the Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin-Mil­wau­kee, al­ready notable for be­ing the first fresh­wa­ter sciences grad­u­ate school in the coun­try. Both in­sti­tu­tions could rea­son­ably ex­pect to ben­e­fit hand­somely from a fed­eral wa­ters project in their back­yard.

Again, Thun­der Bay is a model. Lo­cated in a re­mote area of North­ern Michi­gan, the sanc­tu­ary has be­come the lo­cal leader in tech­nol­ogy and in­no­va­tion. With no uni­ver­si­ties nearby to part­ner with, Thun­der Bay de­vel­oped in­struc­tional pro­grams with area high schools and com­mu­nity col­leges. In 2014, it hosted teams from Scot­land and Egypt at the In­ter­na­tional Re­motely Op­er­ated Ve­hi­cle Com­pe­ti­tion, a re­mark­able feat for a city two-and-a-half hours from an in­ter­na­tional air­port.

The cen­tral of­fices for the Thun­der Bay sanc­tu­ary are lo­cated in what used to be a pa­per plant, painted two-tone blue with a white band curv­ing through the mid­dle.

The build­ing show­cases a large vis­i­tor’s cen­ter, which hosts ap­prox­i­mately 100,000 pa­trons ev­ery year, 10 times the pop­u­la­tion of Alpena. A full-sized replica of a ship­wreck in progress takes up most of the in­side. Vis­i­tors are guided through the life of a ship­wreck, be­gin­ning at the mo­ment of peril and con­tin­u­ing to the lake floor. Back up­stairs, there’s video footage of Robert Bal­lad – who dis­cov­ered the re­mains of the Ti­tanic – when he ex­plored the sanc­tu­ary in the early 2000s. Vis­i­tors can also sign up to tour nearby ship­wrecks viewed through a glass-bot­tom boat.

Thun­der Bay su­per­in­ten­dent Jeff Gray has been with the cen­ter for most of its ex­is­tence, and he can re­mem­ber a time when the idea wasn’t as im­pres­sive (or wel­come) as it is to­day. The key, he be­lieves, was en­gag­ing with the com­mu­nity while wait­ing for sanc­tu­ary ben­e­fits to ma­te­ri­al­ize.

Five years af­ter the sanc­tu­ary opened, NOAA staff con­ducted a se­ries of pub­lic meet­ings to re­assess com­mu­nity sup­port. Gray saw a com­plete re­ver­sal in sen­ti­ment, with most mem­bers now fa­vor­ing an ex­pan­sion of the sanc­tu­ary.

“The No. 1 com­ment there was we want to see this ex­pan­sion hap­pen,” Gray says. In 2014, Thun­der Bay grew nearly ten­fold from 448 square miles to 4,300 to­tal. This time around it was a much smoother process, wel­comed by the com­mu­nity at large.

As­sum­ing the green light is given to the Wis­con­sin-Lake Michi­gan sanc­tu­ary, it can open as early as 2018. But if there’s one eleventh-hour hitch that could jeop­ar­dize the en­tire project, it’s Pres­i­dent Trump’s pro­posed bud­get, which cuts NOAA funding by 17% and calls for the to­tal elim­i­na­tion of the Sea Grant pro­gram. There are also ques­tions about staffing a new sanc­tu­ary amidst a fed­eral hir­ing freeze.

Russ Green, re­gional co­or­di­na­tor for the project, isn’t com­ment­ing on what the cuts might mean to the pro­posal. “Our fo­cus at this stage is on gath­er­ing pub­lic in­put and writ­ing the fi­nal sanc­tu­ary des­ig­na­tion pro­posal doc­u­ments,” he said in an email. Still it’s clear that im­pact of po­ten­tial cuts can’t be ig­nored.

A decade at sea, and the Wis­con­sin-Lake Michi­gan sanc­tu­ary is fac­ing some rough wa­ters. But the com­bined ef­forts of a re­gion and the guid­ance of a work­ing model have steered the project this far. Like many early Amer­i­can sea voy­ages, reach­ing the des­ti­na­tion might just be a mat­ter of fate.

Jitka Hanakova and her dog, Deco, on the Molly V out on Lake Michi­gan

The wreck of the North­erner lies five miles out of Port Wash­ing­ton

Russ Green is re­gional co­or­di­na­tor

for the pro­posed ma­rine sanc­tu­ary.

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