Friday, December 17, 2004


Young pilot spots shipwreck, scuba dives to confirm find - The "Interlaken"


Muskegon Chronicle
By Robert C. Burns
December 15, 2004

Student pilot Jonathon Freye of Muskegon was flying low over Lake Michigan when he looked down and saw something that led him to bank his Piper Warrior and make another pass, then several more.

What the then 16-year-old and his flying instructor, Mike Jensen, saw through the calm, clear water that day in September 2003 was a long, dark object which Freye took to be a wooden ship's hull, resting on its side.

Being a licensed scuba diver as well, Freye was uniquely qualified to pursue that theory.

Turns out his first impression was the right one. It was the remains of the 170-foot schooner "Interlaken," which sank just north of Whitehall on Oct. 4, 1934.

The discovery may have given the young Muskegon Catholic Central student some idea of how Robert Ballard must have felt when he first laid eyes on the Titanic in 1985. Except that in Freye's case, the find was purely accidental.

"It was definitely exciting to go from seeing it in the air to actually diving on it," Freye said last week.

"At first it looked like an incoherent piece of wreckage, but then we could see the keel and the bow coming together.

Then if you moved some of the sand away you could see the deck."

The reason no one had seen it before is likely because of wave-induced shifting of the lake bottom. Over time it made the wreck clearly visible, at least temporarily.

But now, as if Mother Nature had replaced a veil over a fleeting glimpse into another time, bottom sand has all but buried the Interlaken's hull once again.

Although it had rather suddenly thrust itself into the present day, the rest of the Interlaken story came much more gradually through months of research.

To Freye and his parents, Doug and Melissa, it was an intriguing mystery that they immediately set out to solve, the way some families might attack a jigsaw puzzle.

To start with, since it was unfamiliar to local divers, more information was needed from the submerged hull itself.

It sits today in 20 to 30 feet of water some 400 feet offshore -- an easy dive for the versatile Jonathon and his father Doug, an experienced wreck diver who took land sightings to triangulate the location.

After they had had time to explore the wrecked hull and gather what data they could, they let the local dive community in on the find. In turn, Dan Bloom, who owns the West Michigan Dive Center in Muskegon, said his shop let the word out -- but didn't broadcast it.

"We kind of kept it hidden," he said. "There are a lot of artifacts and we didn't want things to go missing."

Armed with new information gathered about the wreck, Melissa set to work researching local history records from places like the White Lake Lighthouse Museum, Hackley Public Library, newspaper accounts and the Internet.

What the family eventually pieced together was this:
The two-masted Interlaken was built in 1893 in Algonac. It was owned and operated by A.W. Comstock of Alpena and plied the Great Lakes as part of Comstock's lumber and shingle business.

Further examination revealed that the Interlaken's years as a schooner ended around 1913, when it was converted to a barge. By the early 1930s, the Interlaken was owned by Ira "Jack" Lyons. One reference had it being used as a construction platform during the building of the North Manitou Shoals Lighthouse.

In 1935, the Interlaken had finished its work and was headed to White Lake for the winter, according to an account in The Muskegon Chronicle dated Oct. 4, 1934.

The tug Fred C. Gretling had been towing the Interlaken and a flat scow through heavy seas for some 24 hours when it ran out of coal about four miles north of the White Lake Channel. Although the tug managed to limp into port, the Interlaken sank with four crewmen aboard. They were saved by a rescue party from the White River Coast Guard Station.

The barge, scow and on-board equipment were valued at $75,000. A salvage attempt by the owner eventually failed.
As the Freyes researched the wreck Jonathon had seen from the plane, there was at least one false lead.

At first, local lore and the location of the wreck pointed to another schooner named the L.J. Conway, which sank in 1886. Although the hull was unquestionably that of a 19th-century schooner, the Conway was ruled out because of hull length discrepancies and because more contemporary fixtures were found on board.

Nor was it immediately obvious that the hull was that of the Interlaken, which was classified as a barge when it went down.

It took further research work to determine that the ship that sank in the same general area was but a shadow of the proud sailing ship the Interlaken once was.

An undated photograph from Bowling Green State University's Historical Collection of the Great Lakes shows the Interlaken at dockside with its masts intact but no superstructure to speak of. It had already been converted to a barge, though hardly the kind of thing the word conjures up today.

Freye, meanwhile, is now 17 and looking forward to enrolling in Western Michigan University's College of Aviation.
He wants to be a commercial pilot, and says his dream job would be to work somewhere in the Caribbean, "where I could dive and fly at the same time."

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