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

The waters off Wisconsin’s east coast hold treasures known and yet-undiscovered, with hundreds of sunken ships resting for decades – some for well over a century – on Lake Michigan’s floor. A federal push to create essentially an underwater national park would protect an especially interesting stretch of water, sending divers and researchers down under and creating coastal cachet for lakeside harbor towns.

Six members of the Chicago Scuba Club, in full dive suits and tanks, climb aboard a small boat waiting in Port Washington’s harbor and shove off, running parallel at first with the grass covered cement slab of Coal Dock Park adjacent to the marina, then past the 80-foot breakwater light and into the open waters of Lake Michigan.

They’re riding in a 28-foot aluminum boat called the Molly V, which belongs to Jitka Hanakova, the slim blond woman piloting it down the coastline. For years she’s run a summer side business called Shipwreck Explorers that transports certified divers out to the watery gravesites of early American shipping casualties. Her dog, Deco (as in decompression), is also aboard the vessel.

Jitka Hanakova and her dog, Deco, on the Molly V out on Lake Michigan. Photo courtesy of Zach Brooke

A diving enthusiast herself, Hanakova has assisted in the discoveries of two long-lost vessels located in Lake Michigan. First was the L.R. Doty, a 300-foot cargo ship the group found while acting on a tip from fishermen. She struck gold again with friends five years later when they located the lost steamer Alice E. Wilds that went down in 1892 after colliding with another vessel.

“That was really exciting. That was a true discovery, where we actually went to the library and looked up a whole bunch of articles and documents,” she says.

Today, the divers will explore just one of the 176 identified historic shipwrecks hiding beneath Wisconsin’s waters. The Mid-Lake region, where Hanakova and the divers are, is littered with at least 37 wrecks and perhaps as many as 80. Eighteen are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

It’s this patch of lake that’s been at the center of an intense push, decades in the making, to become designated as a National Marine Sanctuary. And two-and-a-half years after officially being nominated, that status is closer than ever. If it happens, it could be a game changer for the region, bringing federal funds for research and conservation, and raising the profile of the state’s lakeshore cities. Doubtless, more divers in more boats would take to these waters in a rush to discover underwater assets that will key us in to more of our maritime history. But lots would happen on land, too, with the coastal towns from Mequon north to Two Rivers expected to reap a tourism windfall and become host to academic researchers on what would in essence be a liquid national park.

The Northerner itself was once lost for more than a century. The last time anyone laid eyes upon it above the waterline was November 29, 1868, as it limped away from Port Washington looking anything but historic. The day before leaving Port Washington, the Northerner had cracked its hull as it loaded up with lumber. The captain, Andreas Ryerson, was able to keep it afloat by jettisoning its cargo, but he needed a tug to go in any direction besides down. Now, he had one: the Cuyahoga. It wasn’t enough. Five miles southeast of Port Washington, the Northerner capsized and sank to the bottom of the lake.

Video courtesy of Andrew Orr

Ryerson’s loss was Wisconsin’s gain, as the boat has ironically proven to be more lucrative underwater than floating atop it. The Chicago Scuba Club wouldn’t be up here now without it. Anchored 130 feet above the Northerner’s carcass, the six men gather their underwater cameras and make the two-minute descent 130 feet below the surface. Hanakova and Deco stay on ship. She’s already been down there.

“The hull is completely intact. It’s a really nice dive,” Hanakova says. “The mast is there. It’s fallen down and it’s laying on its side. When I dove it the first time, I could only see maybe five feet ahead of me. Then I dove it five years later and I could see like 50 feet. The mussels really clear it up.”

Like Yellowstone and Yosemite, national marine sanctuaries are selected for their beauty and importance, overseen by a team of field researchers, protected by federal conservation efforts and used by scientists as living laboratories, and they play host to outdoorsy types on holiday. Like the national parks, national marine sanctuaries encompass wide swaths of ecological diversity and are as different from one another as Denali is from the Everglades.

The U.S. National Marine Sanctuary program began in 1972 as a response to a string of high-profile ecological disasters. Three years earlier, a 10-day oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara pumped an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 barrels of crude into the Pacific Ocean; around the same time the Cuyahoga River caught fire in Cleveland. Oversight of the program was given to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, itself just two years removed from being formed.

Lakeshore Attractions - Lake Michigan

Lakeshore Attractions

A visitor’s center may be the focal point for the lakeshore marine sanctuary, but it’s not the only game in town. All four communities have invested in attractions that connect their city to the water.

Wisconsin Maritime Museum

This Smithsonian Institution affiliate museum is dedicated to displaying maritime heritage throughout the Great Lakes. Drawing up to 50,000 guests annually, the museum’s collection boasts the USS Cobia, a restored WWII-era submarine.

Rogers Street Fishing Village

More than just a channel for commerce, Lake Michigan also provided generations of Wisconsinites with food from its enormous fish stocks. This collection of rehabbed period structures captures a time when fishing was not just a sport, but a way of life.

Sea to Space Exploratorium

An extension of the science museum Spaceport Sheboygan, this facility highlights water science and technology. Plans are underway for a NASA partnership to connect astronauts’ underwater training segments to the facility.

Port Exploreum

A recently opened museum that provides lakebed shipwreck viewing for those without technical diving certifications. Placing their heads into antique diving helmets, patrons can see video of sunken wrecks lying hundreds of feet below the waterline.

There are currently 14 national marine sanctuaries in the United States and its territories. If approved, the proposed Wisconsin- Lake Michigan sanctuary would be just the second in the Great Lakes, joining Michigan’s Thunder Bay location. It would become only the third sanctuary established for cultural value instead of environmental considerations. The preferred boundaries for Wisconsin-Lake Michigan encompass 875 square miles, extending 9 to 14 miles from shore.

In the case of Wisconsin-Lake Michigan proposal, that mostly means protecting the sunken wrecks of yesteryear from looters through enforcement of the Abandoned Shipwreck Act. Complementing this mission would be a strong public information campaign celebrating the area’s heritage while highlighting its vulnerability.

The earliest awareness that the wrecks scattered across the state’s lakebed were worthy of conservation efforts came in the 1960s and ’70s, according to state archaeologist John Broihahn.

“Already, in the mid-60s when scuba technology originated, there were people along the coast who recognized the historical and recreational value of the wrecks. They were concerned that people were removing stuff, or that wrecks would be damaged by marina projects,” he says.

The wreck of the Northerner lies five miles out of Port Washington
The wreck of the Northerner lies five miles out of Port Washington; Photo by Andrew Orr

It wasn’t until 2007 that serious discussions for an actual sanctuary began in earnest. Informal conversations with NOAA led state maritime archaeologists to produce a report exploring sanctuary status. The document, “Wisconsin’s Historic Shipwrecks,” came out a year later and synthesizes the sum of knowledge amassed by the marine archeology division throughout its history.

“Wisconsin was of interest to us. They have probably the best underwater archaeology program in the country,” says Ellen Brody, NOAA’s Great Lakes Regional Coordinator. But it had the misfortune of publishing the report after NOAA declared a moratorium on new sanctuaries. Wisconsin would have to wait years to apply. When the ban finally lifted in 2014, state officials pounced.

Nomination paperwork was submitted by Gov. Scott Walker in November 2014 and included over 200 letters of support from interested parties. Underscoring the broad base of support for the uniqueness of the project, the packet included letters of support from Sens. Ron Johnson and Tammy Baldwin. A year later, the sanctuary was officially proposed by then-President Obama during a world ocean summit in Chile.

“That Barack Obama, Scott Walker, Ron Johnson and Tammy Baldwin all agreed on one thing … I don’t know if you’ll ever see that again,” says Manitowoc Mayor Justin Nickels. He, like the mayors of every municipality along the proposed sanctuary, supports it, too.

Russ Green is regional coordinator for the proposed marine sanctuary; Photo by Will Skaggs

With a population slightly over 10,000, Alpena, Michigan, doesn’t even crack the list of the top 175 largest municipalities in the state, but it still easily claims the title of the biggest town on the sunrise side of Northern Michigan. And it’s surprisingly bohemian, with laser tag, food trucks and a yoga studio. It seems to punch above its weight, trendwise. A fishing, limestone and cement town, it reinvents itself every summer as a tourist locale.

Any ship going to or from Milwaukee via Lake Huron must pass by the city while navigating the top of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. Head back in time and these waterways become even more important than they are now. It should come as no surprise, then, that this area contains hundreds, if not thousands of shipwrecks accumulating over the years. Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary exists to protect them. Shipwreck Soda, brewed locally, celebrates them.

The first-in-the-Great-Lakes marine sanctuary, once a hotbed of controversy, has become an object of admiration in Wisconsin. Five years after Thunder Bay sanctuary opened, a regional study found it boosted sales in its tri-county region by $92 million. Officials in Port Washington, Sheboygan, Manitowoc and Two Rivers are banking on similar effects in their communities. Each city has taken steps to re-emphasize its maritime roots in a bid to win NOAA investment.

Then there are the academic possibilities. The University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute is another NOAA-funded program that sponsors research partnerships between federal agencies and state universities. And just south of the proposed sanctuary is the School of Freshwater Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, already notable for being the first freshwater sciences graduate school in the country. Both institutions could reasonably expect to benefit handsomely from a federal waters project in their backyard.

Down in the Depths

Other known shipwrecks located within the proposed national marine sanctuary :

Rouse Simmons: This three-masted schooner ended each year’s service by collecting pine trees harvested from the northern forests of Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and bringing them south for sale during the run-up to Christmas. In 1912, seven months after the sinking of the Titanic, the Rouse Simmons went down in rough weather 12 miles northeast of Two Rivers, taking the crew and a full load of Christmas trees.

Gallinipper: The oldest known commercial shipwreck vessel in the state, the Gallinipper began service in 1833 as the Nancy Dousman, delivering supplies to the Wisconsin territory and returning back east loaded with furs. Rechristened in 1846, it sank five years later after capsizing in a squall approximately 10 miles out between Manitowoc and Sheboygan.

Niagara: A side-wheeled steamship built in 1846, the Niagara operated as a passenger ferry for 10 years before catching fire a mile offshore from Belgium, Wisconsin. While most on board escaped, 60 people died in the fire or were drowned in Lake Michigan, including a former member of Congress.

Francis Hinton: This Manitowoc-built steam barge was trapped near the coast of its home port in November 1909 when storm-driven waves extinguished the fires that powered the engine. The vessel was helpless in the churning lake, and orders went out to abandon ship before it smashed to pieces against the shoreline.

Senator: This 400-foot steam-powered freighter first sank in 1909 after colliding with another boat in the St. Mary’s River. It was able to be salvaged and restored only to be submerged again 20 years later in 500 feet of water while carrying a load of 241 Kenosha-built Nash automobiles.

Again, Thunder Bay is a model. Located in a remote area of Northern Michigan, the sanctuary has become the local leader in technology and innovation. With no universities nearby to partner with, Thunder Bay developed instructional programs with area high schools and community colleges. In 2014, it hosted teams from Scotland and Egypt at the International Remotely Operated Vehicle Competition, a remarkable feat for a city two-and-a-half hours from an international airport.

The central offices for the Thunder Bay sanctuary are located in what used to be a paper plant, painted two-tone blue with a white band curving through the middle.

The building showcases a large visitor’s center, which hosts approximately 100,000 patrons every year, 10 times the population of Alpena. A full-sized replica of a shipwreck in progress takes up most of the inside. Visitors are guided through the life of a shipwreck, beginning at the moment of peril and continuing to the lake floor. Back upstairs, there’s video footage of Robert Ballad – who discovered the remains of the Titanic – when he explored the sanctuary in the early 2000s. Visitors can also sign up to tour nearby shipwrecks viewed through a glass-bottom boat.

Thunder Bay superintendent Jeff Gray has been with the center for most of its existence, and he can remember a time when the idea wasn’t as impressive (or welcome) as it is today. The key, he believes, was engaging with the community while waiting for sanctuary benefits to materialize.

Five years after the sanctuary opened, NOAA staff conducted a series of public meetings to reassess community support. Gray saw a complete reversal in sentiment, with most members now favoring an expansion of the sanctuary.

“The No. 1 comment there was we want to see this expansion happen,” Gray says. In 2014, Thunder Bay grew nearly tenfold from 448 square miles to 4,300 total. This time around it was a much smoother process, welcomed by the community at large.

Assuming the green light is given to the Wisconsin-Lake Michigan sanctuary, it can open as early as 2018. But if there’s one eleventh-hour hitch that could jeopardize the entire project, it’s President Trump’s proposed budget, which cuts NOAA funding by 17% and calls for the total elimination of the Sea Grant program. There are also questions about staffing a new sanctuary amidst a federal hiring freeze.

Russ Green, regional coordinator for the project, isn’t commenting on what the cuts might mean to the proposal.

“Our focus at this stage is on gathering public input and writing the final sanctuary designation proposal documents,” he said in an email. Still it’s clear that impact of potential cuts can’t be ignored.

A decade at sea, and the Wisconsin-Lake Michigan sanctuary is facing some rough waters. But the combined efforts of a region and the guidance of a working model have steered the project this far. Like many early American sea voyages, reaching the destination might just be a matter of fate.

 ‘Going Coastal’ appears in the May, 2017 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands beginning May 1, or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop.

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