Sunken treasure? | Lake Michigan shipwrecks could buoy local economies

Lisa Neff, Staff writer

Treasure lies at the bottom of Lake Michigan.

In some places, the treasure is found 10 feet under the blue-green water. Elsewhere, a diver needs to go deep into the cold, freshwater lake to find the historical riches.

Wisconsin’s sunken wealth is not in gold or silver, but in shipwrecks — schooners and tugs, barges and canallers, many of them built in the 19th century and once engaged in the economic expansion of the United States.

On Oct. 5, via a video message played at a conference in Chile, President Barack Obama declared his support for a new marine sanctuary to preserve and federally protect the integrity of many of these shipwrecks.

“This major announcement will protect and preserve some of Wisconsin’s most treasured places and boost our local tourism economy,” said U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat from Wisconsin and a leading advocate of the sanctuary effort.

The Wisconsin sanctuary proposal and one for Maryland are under review, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration taking public comments into January 2016.

The Wisconsin sanctuary would encompass an 875-square mile area of Lake Michigan along the Wisconsin coastline from Port Washington to Two Rivers. The sanctuary — the southern boundary is about 27 miles north of Milwaukee — would include 80 miles of shoreline.

“The nominated area contains an extraordinary collection of 39 known shipwrecks, 15 of which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places,” said John Broihahn, state archeologist for the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison. WHS is dedicated to preserving historic shipwrecks and facilitating “responsible” diver access to the sites. It is at the forefront of the campaign to establish the sanctuary.

“This designation,” Broihahn said, “will allow us to focus on protecting these underwater museums, which are physical reminders of the men and women who made a living, and sometimes died, working on the lake.”


More than 1,000 shipwrecks are on the bottom of the Great Lakes. The wrecks serve as time capsules for historians and archeologists. Consider that everything on board a ship that sank in 1849 is from that year or earlier — tools, clothing, books, maps, charts, cargo.

The WHS says the proposed marine sanctuary contains “an extraordinary collection of submerged maritime heritage resources”:

• Wisconsin’s two oldest known shipwrecks.

• At least 14 intact shipwrecks.

• 15 shipwrecks on the National Register of Historic Places.

• At least three shipwrecks with standing masts — a Great Lakes rarity.

• The best-preserved shipwreck in the state. The steam tug Robert Pringle still “reportedly has nautical charts stowed in drawers in the wheelhouse,” according to the nomination papers.

The site also contains the palace steamer Niagara, which was carrying about 300 passengers, many of them immigrants arriving to settle in the Midwest. Sixty died when the ship caught fire and sank into the lake in 1856.

“A lot of people, their connection to the lake is the shore, the beaches and dunes. I really encourage people to look into what’s out there in the lake, in the water,” said Gary Kettle, a recreational diver from Milwaukee. “The history that’s out there. And the beauty. Some of the best diving in the country.”

The sanctuary site may contain as many as 84 other shipwrecks.

The site, said Broihahn, covers “a major shipping highway directly involved in the expansion of the United States.”

A sanctuary designation helping preserve these shipwrecks would have a ripple effect, bolstering conservation of the largest freshwater system in the world and expanding recreational, educational and tourism opportunities.

Overdue opportunity

NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries serves as the trustee for national marine-protected areas totaling 170,000 square miles of water from Washington state to the Florida Keys. 

However, the government has not designated a national marine sanctuary since 2000 and only one sanctuary is in the Great Lakes — Thunder Bay in Lake Huron.

So it seemed a sink-or-swim proposition in October 2013, when Baldwin urged NOAA to re-open the public nomination process for the first time in 20 years.

“Having the vision and support of Sen. Baldwin throughout this process has been critical,” said Rolf Johnson, CEO of the Wisconsin Maritime Museum in Manitowoc. “The senator understands how important this sanctuary could be to our economy and to opening up new educational opportunities for our citizens.”

In June 2014, the Obama administration announced marine sanctuary nominations would be considered.

And, in December 2014, Gov. Scott Walker submitted the “Lake Michigan — Wisconsin National Marine Sanctuary” nomination, prepared by the historical society and the state coastal management program with endorsements from historical societies, museums, tourism bureaus, environmental groups, chambers of commerce, universities, school districts, elected officials and also various recreational groups representing fishers, divers, yachters, kayakers and sailors.

The thick nomination package also included statements from some residents on the coast, such as Pat Wilborn of Port Washington, who encouraged a designation and boasted about his city’s churches and community groups, a diversity in liberal and conservative thinking and in general a good quality of life in a “nice place to live.”

“This is really a grassroots movement,” Broihahn said of the support.

Economic impact

News that NOAA was moving forward with the proposal thrilled many, but the most enthusiasm could be found in the coastal communities of Port Washington, Sheboygan, Manitowoc and Two Rivers.

Greg Buckley, Two Rivers city manager, said, “Our community’s history is written on the water: The two rivers that reach their confluence at our harbor on Lake Michigan and the big lake itself, where our location on Rawley Point has made Two Rivers witness to many shipwrecks.”

Two Rivers and other communities on the mid-Lake Michigan coast have struggled with the loss of marine industry jobs, but have succeeded in reclaiming waterfronts for recreation, education and tourism. They’ve revitalized downtowns and invested in libraries, museums, trails and tourism initiatives.

Manitowoc boasts a federally recognized port, a maritime museum and is the docking site for the S.S. Badger carferry that crosses the lake to Ludington, Michigan.

Port Washington has a deep-water harbor, an award-winning lakeside park and the Port Exploreum, which focuses on maritime history.

Two Rivers is home to one of the last commercial fishing companies on Lake Michigan, as well as dive shops, the Great Lakes Coast Guard Museum and the Rogers Street Fishing Village. Visitors to any of these locations can expect to hear about the Rouse Simmons, aka the “Christmas Tree Ship,” a three-masted schooner that disappeared in a wintery gale in November 1912. 

“As a community pursuing redevelopment that will turn our face back to the water, we see the establishment of the national marine sanctuary as a huge asset, in terms of drawing visitors to our area and increasing public appreciation for our marine resources,” Buckley said.

Collecting comments

NOAA now is asking for public input on the proposed Wisconsin-Lake Michigan National Marine Sanctuary.

Public meetings are Nov. 17 at the Wisconsin Maritime Museum in Manitowoc, Nov. 18 at the Wilson House in Port Washington and Nov. 19 at the University of Wisconsin-Sheboygan.

NOAA also is collecting comments online at through Jan. 15. The docket number for the project is NOAA-NOS-2015-0112.

Mail comments to Ellen Brody, Great Lakes Regional Coordinator, ONMS Northeast and Great Lakes Region, 4840 S. State Road, Ann Arbor, MI 48108

Did you know?

About 22 percent of Wisconsin is under water. The state’s lakes and rivers contain thousands of archeological sites, including shipwrecks, the remains of trading posts, lumber mills, quarries and other structures. Source: