The wreck of the Northerner lies five miles out of Port Washington

Lake Michigan’s Underwater Shipwrecks Are Now Part of a National Marine Sanctuary

The designation of these underwater archaeological sites will help protect Wisconsin’s maritime history.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has designated a 962-square-mile area of Wisconsin’s Lake Michigan as a national marine sanctuary. Such sanctuaries are protected waters that include important habitats and, in cases like this, archeological sites.

The Wisconsin Shipwreck Coast National Marine Sanctuary will protect 36 historically significant shipwrecks and related maritime heritage resources, 21 of which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Well-preserved by Lake Michigan’s cold, fresh water, several of the known shipwrecks are essentially intact and look much like they did when they sank. The area also includes Wisconsin’s two oldest known shipwrecks, and archival research suggests there may be dozens more yet to be discovered.

RELATED: Wisconsin is Trying to Turn Lake Michigan Shipwrecks Into an ‘Underwater National Park’

U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo said the designation is “an exciting opportunity for the public to celebrate and help protect this piece of our nation’s rich maritime history.”

Spanning the early 1800s through the 20th century, the shipwrecks represent a cross-section of vessel types that played critical roles in transforming the Great Lakes from a maritime frontier into the nation’s busiest waterway. The ships carried grain and raw materials east as other vessels traveled west loaded with coal, manufactured goods and settlers.

“The designation of this sanctuary is a milestone for NOAA, Wisconsin and the nation,” said Nicole LeBoeuf, acting director of NOAA’s National Ocean Service. “This new sanctuary opens the door to world-class research, educational opportunities and tourism for generations to come.”

NOAA and the state of Wisconsin will co-manage the sanctuary. The sanctuary designation will take effect following 45 days of continuous session of the U.S. Congress after publication of this action in the Federal Register.

“The designation builds on 30 years of maritime heritage preservation by the State of Wisconsin and will create exciting new opportunities in education, recreation and tourism in our coastal communities,” Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers said.

The wreck of the Northerner, lost near Port Washington in 1868. Photo by Andrew Orr

The area was nominated for national marine sanctuary consideration by a diverse coalition of organizations and individuals at local, state, regional and national levels. This included elected officials, historical societies, businesses, museums and environmental, recreational, conservation, tourism and educational groups. Principal cities involved in the nomination include Port Washington, Sheboygan, Manitowoc and Two Rivers.

“Our Wisconsin Shipwreck Coast National Marine Sanctuary will protect and preserve historic sites, bring new opportunities for research and boost our local tourism economy,” U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, (D-Wis.), said.

This is the first sanctuary designation since the protection of Mallows Bay, Maryland, near Washington, D.C., in 2019.



Rich Rovito is a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine.