Friday, September 16, 2005


Sunken ferry awaits discovery


The Sheboygan Press
By Eric Litke
September 13, 2005

The Pere Marquette 18.

The largest undiscovered shipwreck in Lake Michigan—the Pere Marquette 18—is waiting about 20 miles off Sheboygan where it has been since 1910, according to experts.

But it may not stay undiscovered for long.

Two sought-after shipwrecks were found this summer off the coast of Port Washington—one of which had been the lake’s largest undiscovered wreck—and some divers may now be setting their sights on Sheboygan.

“I’m confident that the wreck will be found in the next few years,” said Brendon Baillod, Great Lakes marine historian. “There’s a lot of people that are interested in finding this wreck.”
One of the interested people is Steve Radovan, 59, of Sheboygan.

“We thought about that one,” he said. “(But) it’s pretty far off shore … It’s a pretty iffy proposition.”

He said the jagged bottom in the area and the likely depth of the Pere Marquette 18—more than 300 feet—made it an intriguing but unrealistic target for him.

Baillod said he knows of only two people on Lake Michigan who have the equipment needed to find a wreck at that depth: a long-range, side-scanning sonar.

“It’s a pretty small, exclusive group of people that can look for a ship in that deep of water,” he said.

One of those men is Harry Zych, 59, of Chicago.

“It’s an interesting old shipwreck that caught my fancy,” he said. “It’s been on everyone’s shipwreck list for a long time.”

But like many divers, Zych won’t reveal anything about his present pursuits, whether it be methodology, location or which ships he is looking for.

Is Zych going to pursue the Pere Marquette 18?

“I’m not going to answer that one,” he said.

While no one has claimed discovery of the Pere Marquette 18, it is possible a diver has found it and kept silent, as Paul Ehorn of Elgin, Ill. — the other man with the necessary equipment — did when he found the Mahoning in 1999.

The Mahoning was “rediscovered” and publicized Aug. 27 by Brad Ingersoll of Belgium.
Legend has it that Dick Race, a Lake Michigan hydrographic surveyor and salvor in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, found the ship while surveying an underwater geographic fault as part of a site study for the Alliant Energy power plant, according to Baillod.

He said if the legend is true, though, Race took the location with him to his grave.

Ehorn said he is not actively pursuing the Pere Marquette 18.

Butch Klopp, a veteran Port Washington diver, said he has heard stories of fishermen who have snagged nets in the approximate area of the Pere Marquette 18 and have had possible hits on depth finders, but no one has confirmed a location.

A fateful journey
The Pere Marquette 18 is a 338-foot train-car ferry that foundered while attempting an emergency detour to Sheboygan after mysteriously beginning to take on water.

The ship was making its first run of the year as a ferry, having been outfitted with a dance floor, palm garden and other amenities over the summer for use as an excursion boat in Chicago.

The shipwreck, according to Baillod and The Sheboygan Press archives, happened as follows:
The ship left Ludington, Mich., just before midnight on Sept. 9, 1910, bound for Milwaukee with a near-capacity load of 29 railroad cars.

About three hours into her journey, sailors below deck made a distressing discovery: The stern was filled with seven feet of water, and with no apparent cause.

Captain Peter Kilty was worried by the news, but not panicked, as ships the size of the Pere Marquette 18 could handle that much water.

“He felt that it was in danger, but not imminent danger, I imagine,” Baillod said.

Shortly after 4 a.m., the captain realized he was not going to make it to Milwaukee and made a critical decision. Instead of heading east to Little Sable Point on the Michigan shore, where the rocky coastline could have damaged or destroyed the ship, Kilty headed west to Sheboygan.

“Nobody thought this ship was going to sink,” Baillod said, “and there was no reason it should, with watertight bulkheads underneath.”

28 perish with the ship
Only 30 minutes after bearing west, however, Kilty and his crew realized the ship would not make it, and over the next two hours a total of 13 railroad cars were jettisoned into the unforgiving waters while engineers stoked the boilers in hopes of making Sheboygan.

At 5 a.m. the Pere Marquette 18 began sending out distress calls: “No. 18 is sinking in mid-lake, for God’s sake help us,” was the call that went out at 5:20 a.m.

The Pere Marquette 17 out of Milwaukee intersected the foundering ship around 7:30 a.m., just in time to witness the disaster.

“We had just reached No. 18 when it went down,” Capt. Milligan of the Pere Marquette 17 told The Sheboygan Press the next day. “It went down stern first, and just as the waters closed over it there seemed to be an explosion, either of steam or by the compression of air, which blew the cabin entirely off the boat in fragments, and these pieces of wreckage undoubtedly saved the lives of a number of the crew.”

Milligan said the wreckage and survivors were scattered for five miles in all directions.

Baillod said that most likely one of the internal bulkheads collapsed, filling the ship and plunging it beneath the waves, its suction pulling the crew downward as the Pere Marquette 17 hastily launched lifeboats.

As the steel ship sunk rapidly to the lake bottom, the buoyant masts tore free from their rigging, shooting to the surface as and flying as much as a 100 feet in the air and killing several men.

In the end, 28 died, including every officer, the entire engine crew and two rescuers from the Pere Marquette 17. Twenty bodies were never recovered.

A perplexing demise
Now nearly 100 years after she sank, divers and historians are as baffled about why the Pere Marquette 18 sank as they are about where the ship is.

“The big mystery surrounding this ship still is why she sank. Nobody really knows,” Baillod said.
Possible explanations for the leak that sunk the ship have included open deadlights (skylight equivalents), a leaking propeller shaft or a collapsed bulkhead (internal vertical supporting wall), but Baillod believes the answer could be much simpler.

“One of the sailors who was on the ship claimed, and it was printed in a number of papers of the day, that when they were leaving Ludington the stern struck a bridge abutment—hard enough that it knocked the second mate off,” he said. “I think that’s probably correct. The crewman would have no reason to make that up.”

But it will likely never be known why exactly the Pere Marquette 18 sank—even if the ship is found, it will likely be at a depth that makes close study extremely difficult.

Her secret remains with 20 of her crew, hundreds of feet beneath the surface of Lake Michigan.


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