Wisconsin’s Shipwreck Coast is filled with sunken history
Unless it is, say, the Titanic, shipwrecks do not often make it a trivial tradition. But a 109-year-old wreck deep in the cold waters of Lake Michigan has sunk into the fabric of the Great Lakes, inspiring plays, stories, art, and even songs about its demise. And that’s understandable.
The patina Wake up Simmons The schooner, widely known as the Christmas Tree Ship, sank just north of Rawley Point, Wisconsin on November 22, 1912. Commanded by Captain Herman Schuenemann (nickname: “Captain Santa”), she was carrying a precious vacation cargo, taking trees from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula for sale in Chicago. There were about 16 men on board, crew members and a few loggers hitchhiking. “He was a kind man,” says Tamara Thomsen, wreck scientist and maritime archaeologist for the Wisconsin Historical Society. âThey were going to give them free passage to see their families during the holidays. “
There were many of these ships carrying trees – the old growth forests of the state were almost entirely swallowed up – but within three short years the Wake up Simmons worked, he had become beloved. Captain Santa not only donated many trees to families who couldn’t afford theirs, but he also took in the marketing, making his arrival in Chicago Harbor a big and celebratory affair. âThey would hoist garlands and leaves around the mast and rigging and fairy lights around the ship,â says Thomsen. And at the top of the pole was a Christmas tree, their own topper. “Which would not do you want to buy them a tree? “
This November the Wake up Simmons was on his way to the Windy City, stocked to the brim and smelling of pine. Then, without much warning, a sudden gust of wind blew. The waves were violent and choppy. The boat cut close to shore, in sight of a rescue station, with staff recording various signs of distress in their logbook. When rescuers got to the water, the Wake up Simmons had disappeared, tragically taking everyone with him.
But the boat still lives, in a sense. You can find it 155 feet below the surface of Lake Michigan, which is part of a recently designated 962 square mile area of ââthe Wisconsin Shipwreck Coast National Marine Sanctuary.
âIts depth is at an extreme,â says Thomsen. âRecreational diving is reduced to 130 feet, but it is very easy for novice technical divers to see this wreck.â Inside the ship’s hull are stacked Christmas trees. “Some of them still have the needles on them.”
There are more than 700 ships lost in Wisconsin waters, 115 which Thomsen and his team examined. 36 are known to be in the Wisconsin Shipwreck Coast National Marine Sanctuary, but research suggests another 60 have yet to be rediscovered. Beyond the numbers, the region is uniquely positioned for preservation: cold, dark waters have low oxygen levels, helping to preserve wood. And unlike the ocean, the lack of salt prevents metals from corroding. The Wisconsin Historical Society is a leader in wreck research, maintains an online wreck resource at wisconsinshipwrecks.org, and also publishes a book, Stories of the Wreck: A Maritime History of the Great Lakes Inspired by Shipwrecks.
Like the Christmas Tree Ship, each wreck tells a story of the region and the country’s maritime past, beginning with Wisconsin’s position at the forefront of the western border. âIt was a mega highway,â says Thomsen. “Before there were roads and trains, that was the way to get people to immigrate to this area.” The lakes later became a shipping route, with over a thousand boats plying Lake Michigan each year in the late 1800s. As the plethora of wrecks suggests, traffic sometimes causes collisions. . Says Thomsen: âIt was also a time when very few lighthouses and little navigation existed. “
In addition to weather and traffic conditions, the shipwrecks occurred as a result of boiler explosions or simply heaviness, as in the case of the Gallinipper, the oldest wreck in Wisconsin, built in 1833 for the fur trader and the prestigious local Michael Dousman. (You may have encountered the town of Dousman, just west of Milwaukee, or one of the many Dousman-like streets in Green Bay.) When the fur trade resumed, they cut the ship, then called the Nancy Dousman, and stretched it out. The hasty adjustment got out of balance and on a sail without cargo in 1851 it capsized in a surprise gust, sinking 230 feet. Fortunately, everyone made it ashore in lifeboats. âThere is always a mast on it, which is so cool,â notes Thomsen. âEverything on this ship is hand carved. You can tell it is very old.
And then there’s the nightmare thing, or at least Indiana Jones movies. Around Rawley Point, just north of Two Rivers, is a dangerous area of ââquicksand. âIt’s kind of a trap,â says Thomsen. âRawley Point stands out and [boats] get a little too close. Once in the bend, they sink into the sand and sink. âI think we’ve listed eight wrecks on the National Registry that were lost at Rawley Point,â says Thomsen. “[With currents] they come out of the sand and we’ll have to run in and watch them while they’re free. And when the next storm passes, they’re buried again. There are whole boats that are buried in the sand!
It’s Thomsen’s job and Caitlin Zant, two maritime archaeologists with the Wisconsin Historical Society, to chronicle these preserved pieces of cultural history. Thomsen is modest in the Midwest when it comes to accolades – she was instrumental in securing her protective status by the Shipwreck Coast, receiving awards from the Association for Great Lakes Maritime History and the Great Lakes Shipwreck Preservation Society, and in 2014, was inducted into the Women Divers Hall of Fame.
She worked on imaging the remains of the Titanic and last November, the Wisconsin team unearthed a 1,200-year-old dugout canoe (a monumental find they stumbled upon on her day off). She mainly works on wrecks, although she is currently digging a flooded iron mine in the Baraboo Range, which is particularly exciting for her. âThere is a wooden toolbox full of tools that is on one of the pumps. Whoever was trying to fix the pump couldn’t, so it was “manage for your life!” “”
With wrecks, the job is to document, using data and measurements, the creation of a metaphorical snapshot of the site. Thomsen says: âWe have everything anyone carried on this ship: their personal effects, the cargo representative of the time and the industries that were going on at that time as well. They build a scale drawing of the time capsule on the ocean floor, cataloging and photographing all the artifacts, leaving all the pieces in place. (If you come across a wreck in the shrine, be aware that it is illegal to remove anything.) âWe leave everything behind, not just because it’s new to us, but it’s new to everyone. coming behind us, âexplains Thomsen. âThe people who dive here want to see things. That’s why they come.
Through the efforts of Thomsen and his team, 27 of the wrecks in Wisconsin waters are listed on the National Historic Register, each taking a thesis workload, some with 45 pages of historical records alone. Fortunately, the area’s recent designation as a Maritime Sanctuary has led to greater resources: in addition to additional funding, it protects all wrecks at the federal level from looting or damage.
Many shipwrecks are accessible to adventurers. the Gallinipper and the Christmas tree boat can be reached by diving; can also Vernon, an elegant freight and passenger liner that sank in 1887 just a year after its construction; and Homepage, an 1850s merchant ship believed to have played a role in the Underground Railroad. Sinking in a schooner collision, he now sits right submarine. âIt’s an absolutely magnificent shipwreck,â says Thomsen. âYou can still see the damage on the starboard side where the William fiske to hit.”
You can go kayaking or snorkeling up to Arctic, an 1881 icebreaker tug that sank in 1930, now under 14 feet of water. But you’ll need an ROV (Remote Control Vehicle) to see inside Thomsen’s favorite wreck in the sanctuary: the Senator, which died out in October 1929 with 268 Wisconsin-made Nash automobiles. The wreck sits 450 feet below the surface, with pristine – and very cool – cargo still intact. âIf you think about it, it’s two days after the market collapsed,â says Thomsen. âSo they had all this stock and they were going to try to put it on the market and get what they could. And then they lost all of their vehicles. This company surprisingly survived the whole depression after that loss.
For deep dives above the water in Wisconsin’s maritime history, there are several maritime museums to explore, including the historic Villa Louis site, an 1870s Victorian mansion built by the Dousman family, and the Wisconsin Maritime Museum, 60,000 square feet dedicated to the waterways of the Great Lakes region, with model ships, a working steam engine and submarines like the WWII USS Cobia.
Or just grab a wetsuit and go exploring on your own. Just watch out for quicksand.
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