Experience Wisconsin

Maritime Mysteries: Wisconsin’s Shipwrecks

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Photography by Tamara Thomsen, Wisconsin Historical Society

A good shipwreck is an underwater time capsule, says the Wisconsin Historical Society, because the remains capsulize life from a specific and long-ago era. Along Lake Michigan are ways to explore shipwrecks on land or sea, and these opportunities are expected to keep growing.

An estimated 10,000 ships have met their demise on the Great Lakes since the late 1600s.

Museums tell a part of the story, but many tales of ships gone missing stay mysterious as remnants remain undiscovered. That should change as work continues to designate a 65-mile stretch of Lake Michigan, between Port Washington and Two Rivers, as a National Marine Sanctuary. The project began in 2010.

Designation is not guaranteed, but the area “has met national significance criteria and been added to the inventory list for possible sanctuary designation” in two or three years, says Vernon Smith of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

A National Marine Sanctuary is an elite NOAA classification. The Lake Michigan corridor in Wisconsin would be the first new sanctuary in 20 years. Twelve of the other 13 are in oceans (think Florida Keys); the exception is Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary in northwest Lake Huron.

“Sanctuaries are places where anyone can go to experience the power and beauty of the ocean and form lasting memories in spectacular natural settings, from the vibrant coral reefs of American Samoa to the towering kelp forests of Monterey Bay,” NOAA explains, online.

Cold freshwater preserves wrecked ships better and longer than salt water, which is a part of what makes the Lake Michigan corridor significant. For example, the Westmoreland steamship sank in 1854 yet was discovered in excellent shape 155 years later.

Zebra mussels and other invasive species, which eat plankton, mean Lake Michigan is getting clearer. That’s not necessarily good for the lake’s ecosystem, because small fish have less to eat, but it makes shipwrecks easier to spot and study.

Fifteen of 39 known shipwrecks in the area are on the National Register of Historic Places. That includes the two oldest known vessels lost in Wisconsin. Another 123 shipwrecks are known and ripe for an infusion of nautical research, public education and proper protection as historic sites.

“The underwater archaeology is well-documented,” says Rolf Johnson, CEO of the Wisconsin Maritime Museum in Manitowoc. Johnson is a trained scientist; his museum preserves and explains nautical history. “It’s good to be at this place, at this time, with these opportunities,” he says.

Expanding in 2015 is the “Underwater Treasures” exhibit, to tell more shipwreck stories. At Door County Maritime Museum, Sturgeon Bay, visitors can find additional glimpses of Lake Michigan shipwreck remains. Look for interactive, touch-screen kiosks about historic shipwrecks at Kenosha Public Museum and Madeline Island Museum (Bayfield County).

The Gills Rock Museum, at the tip of Door County’s mainland, contains artifacts and stories of watercraft lost in the tempestuous Death’s Door passageway. The four-mile-wide strait that connects Lake Michigan and the bay of Green Bay has spooked navigators since the era of French explorers. Strong currents and winds often are at odds with each other along this rocky coastline.

For information on at least 700 Wisconsin shipwrecks, visit www.maritimetrails.org. Find a comprehensive description of shipwreck locations and other nautical attractions at www.wisconsinshipwrecks.org.

Most shipwrecks remain in water, but an exception is the Lottie Cooper schooner, built in 1876 and sunk 20 years later. Recovered wreckage sits in the shoreline DeLand Park in Sheboygan.

Dive guides to 25 Wisconsin shipwrecks are available through the University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute and Wisconsin Historical Society.

The best way to explore a shipwreck is through a dive outfitter with experience finding and examining this type of site. Some shipwrecks are better suited for experienced divers. Occasionally, a wreck is appropriate for snorkelers because of the location and shallower depth of water.

COUNT THESE OUTFITTERS AMONG THOSE THAT UNDERSTAND THE DIFFERENCES.

A&J Dive Charters, Milwaukee: www.ajdivecharters.com, 414-305-3739.

Aquatic Adventures Inc., Brookfield: www.dive-aai.com, 262-938-6827.

Lakeshore Adventures, Bailey’s Harbor: www.lakeshore-adventures.com, 920-8392055.

Shipwreck Adventures, Two Rivers: www.shipwreckadventures.com, 920-482-0725.

Shipwreck Explorers LLC: www.shipwreckexplorers.com, 414-807-8233.

On Lake Superior, narrated glass-bottom boat tours happen during summer through Apostle Islands Cruises, Bayfield. For details: www.apostleisland.com, 800-3237619.


This article originally appeared in the 2016 spring/summer issue of Experience Wisconsin magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.

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