Saturday, April 01, 2006

 

Manitowoc program looks at three ships in Wisconsin waters

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Green Bay Press Gazette
By Warren Gerds
April 01, 2006


Keith Meverden will take folks to three submerged shipwrecks today on Lake Michigan, and nobody will get wet.

"One is in Jackson Harbor on Washington Harbor," said Meverden, underwater archaeologist with the Wisconsin Historical Society. "One is off Sevastopol in Door County about four miles southeast of Whitefish Dunes State Park. The third one is about nine miles southeast of Port Washington."

Meverden will talk about the wrecks and show video from the sites as part of an ongoing series at the Wisconsin Maritime Museum in Manitowoc.

Meverden expects to draw a cross-section of interested listeners — as he and colleagues often do with their presentations. There will be scuba divers who want to learn more about what they're diving on. There will be people who don't dive but are interested in Great Lakes maritime history in general.

"I also get a large number of people who just think it's an exciting topic because the Titanic movie was very popular and, of course, you always hear about the Edmund Fitzgerald," Meverden said. "When they find out, they're kind of excited and want to learn more and see what different types of wrecks we have."

One wreck Meverden will discuss is breaking the surface. Another lies 325 feet deep and was visited by an unmanned submersible — "basically what Bob Ballard uses to explore the Titanic," Meverden said.

The wrecks are among 700 in Wisconsin waters, with 17 on the National Register of Historic Places, according to the Wisconsin Historical Society.

Before planes, trains and automobiles, shipping was the best way to travel and haul goods on the Great Lakes.

"In the late 1860s, there were upwards of 2,000 vessels that were registered on the Great Lakes that were actively sailing — large, commercial-type ships," Meverden said.

You need look no further than the state flag to see the importance of shipping.

"You can see there's a picture of a sailor, an anchor and a caulking mallet, which was used in ship construction," Meverden said. "That alone is testament to how important maritime commerce was to the foundation and the building of Wisconsin."

To Meverden, the shipwrecks are "submerged cultural resources. We literally have one of the best collections in the world of 19th-century shipwrecks that are very well preserved on the bottom. Many people who even live on the lake are not aware of that."

In a sense, the wrecks are time capsules.

"If you have wreck that went down in 1868, it went down with basically everybody's possessions," Meverden said. "How they lived, worked and sometimes how they died on the Great Lakes are on this wreck."

The wrecks are unlike a lot of land sites, which decay and are easily disturbed.

"When it's submerged and hidden, it's a snapshot of that exact point in history," Meverden said.

The underwater archaeologists aren't searching for gold and gems. They treasure something else.

"On a personal level, I get to make an occupation of something that I really enjoy," Meverden said. "It's obviously exciting and a lot of fun to do this.

"On the professional level, I enjoy bringing these resources and showing them to people who may not otherwise be aware of them or even to people who are diving the wrecks, try to help them better understand what they're looking at and make their experience more meaningful.

"From an overall perspective, our goal is to help protect and promote the resources that we have and help preserve them for future generations and not just our own."

The diving season on the Great Lakes begins in late May and runs to October (weather permitting).

This year, one first project in the Manitowoc-Two Rivers area is to host an underwater archaeology field school with East Carolina University in North Carolina. It will document the wreck of the steamer Continental north of Rawley Point Lighthouse.

"Later this summer, we're going to return to Two Rivers to document the Rouse Simmons, 'The Christmas Tree Ship,'" Meverden said.


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