Underwater sanctuary plan aims to preserve Lake Michigan shipwrecks off Wisconsin


(Photo: Unsplash, Justin Sinclair)

After a year of scouring the depths of Lake Michigan with a sonar-equipped fishing boat, Steve Radovan finally got a hit on the gray-scale 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 barquentine, 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 had set sail from Chicago en route to Buffalo 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 movie-makers 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 the U.S. 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 the 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-square-mile 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 was once 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 five 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 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 made 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 S.S. 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 was 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 4,300-square-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 science-themed 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.”

By Tony Briscoe, Chicago Tribune

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