Wednesday, February 20, 2008


Sunken treasures


The Capital Times
By Debra Carr-Elsing
February 19, 2008

Wisconsin Historical Society Images
A diver videos the capstan on the bow of the SS wisconsin
as it lies today near Kenosha.

Take an underwater video tour of the steamer SS Wisconsin as it lies today near Kenosha's shoreline. Learn about its colorful history and how it served in New York Harbor as a convalescent ship for the U.S. Army during World War I before returning to Wisconsin waters, where it sunk in 1929.

Hear about an old wooden schooner that has possible connections to the Underground Railroad. It was discovered off the shores of a Lake Michigan beach, and experts believe it was used to transport fugitive slaves to Canada during the 1800s.

And not to be overlooked is the famous Rouse Simmons shipwreck, which rests 165 feet below the surface of Lake Michigan, 12 miles northeast of Two Rivers. The three-masted schooner -- known as the "Christmas tree ship" -- was built in Milwaukee in 1868. It was used to carry pine trees for holiday decorating from Michigan's Upper Peninsula to the docks of Chicago. All 16 crew members went down with the ship and perished on a blustery November day in 1912 when a storm overpowered them.

Those are among the stories of shipwreck dives and discoveries that will be shared March 7-8 during the 2008 Ghost Ships Festival in Milwaukee.

"Three-quarters of our population in Wisconsin live along the shorelines of Lake Michigan and Lake Superior, but very few people understand the importance of shipping here and how Wisconsin was built as a maritime state," says Keith Meverden, a nautical archaeologist with the Wisconsin Historical Society.

That strong maritime influence is evident in the design of our state flag, he says. In addition to the flag's sailor and anchor, for example, there's also an arm holding a caulking mallet, which is a tool used in ship construction.

"Milwaukee was a huge port, and still is," says Tamara Thomsen, a historic preservation specialist with the Historical Society. She also scuba dives and is a technical diving instructor.

Last year, Thomsen and Meverden went down hundreds of feet into Lake Michigan to document and chart numerous shipwrecks.

Beneath Wisconsin waters lies an entire ghost town of sunken schooners, steamers and tankers, many of which date back to the mid-1800s. In fact, experts estimate that the remains of more than 750 vessels dot the bottom of Wisconsin waters.

"We know the locations of only about 150 of those shipwrecks, so there are still plenty out there that need to be discovered," Meverden says.

And with the availability of side-scan sonar and other advances in technology, it's predicted that more underwater discoveries will be made in years to come.

Most of the shipwrecks are wooden commercial ships from the 19th century, and while they may be perfectly preserved beneath the waters, they would deteriorate very quickly if they were raised to the surface.

"This happened in the late 1960s when the Alvin Clark was brought up from the waters of Green Bay near Chambers Island," Meverden says. "Once it started drying out, the Alvin Clark started shrinking and cracking. It literally turned to dust within 20 years because they were unable to preserve the ship quick enough."

Current federal and state legislation, for the most part, prevents the raising of old shipwrecks. In 1987 the federal government passed a law, the Abandoned Shipwrecks Act, which regulates underwater archaeology sites.

"Chicago was the greatest lumber port of all time, and a lot of ships wrecked along our shorelines getting to and from Chicago in the late 1800s," Thomsen says.

"We certainly have a large distribution of shipwrecks here. There are clusters of shipwrecks around Milwaukee, for example, as well as in Door County, where there's a narrowing of passages near a chain of islands."

Particularly hazardous for vessels, historically, is what's known as "Death's Door" passage near Washington Island.

"Interest in maritime history is growing," Thomsen says. "People want to be connected with their past, and they come from around the world to see and dive the many shipwrecks in Wisconsin waters.

"Even the Wisconsin Department of Tourism has jumped on the shipwreck bandwagon," she says. "An entire page on its Web site is devoted to popular shipwrecks."

To explore some of the wrecks, people don't necessarily need to be able to scuba dive. Some wrecks are in such shallow water that even snorkelers can view them.


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