America’s newest National Marine Sanctuary tells the tales of the Great Lakes

By Susan Lampert Smith

In November, 1912, the Rouse Simmons was ferrying a load of Christmas trees the length of Lake Michigan from he Upper Peninsula to Chicago. The sloop, part of a lumber operation fleet, made weekly runs and, during the holiday season, carried fir trees for holiday celebrations in the city. Captain Herman Schuenemann was known as Captain Santa because he gave trees to the poor and to churches. But on this particular voyage, the Rouse Simmons hit an ice storm and sank, taking between three and five thousand Christmas trees to the bottom of the lake.

Schuenemann went down with his ship (and the rest of the crew), and although fir trees washed ashore at Rawley Point for decades, the  Rouse Simmons wasn’t located until what Russ Green calls “the golden era of wreck hunting” in the 1970s.  “Knowing the story, and the connection it has to Wisconsin, the Upper Peninsula and Chicago, makes that dive so special,’’  said Green, Great Lakes coordinator for the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration (NOAA), which manages the sanctuary. “It still looks like a sloop, and the Christmas trees are still there in the hold.”

Today it’s part of the country’s newest National Marine Sanctuary, the  Wisconsin Shipwreck Coast, which covers 936 square miles of the lake from Kewaunee to Port Washington. It includes thirty-six known shipwrecks, twenty-seven of them on the National Historic Register. Another one hundred wrecks are suspected to be in the area. The sanctuary highlights the Great Lakes’ rich history as a maritime highway, which stretches from the fur trading era through the Underground Railroad and the building of the industrial Midwest. Another sanctuary is proposed for the eastern end of Lake Ontario, which includes a War of 1812 battle site.

Tamara Thomsen, maritime archaeologist for the Wisconsin Historical Society, says the cold fresh water of Lake Michigan preserves the wrecks, and the invasive quagga mussels filter the water, making it very clear. “We have people who come from all over the world, from Europe and from Japan, to dive here,’’ says Thomsen. “It’s rare that visibility is less than fifty feet.”

“There’s this nerdy saying in archeology that the ones that didn’t make it tell us the stories of the majority that did,’’ Green said. The Wisconsin sanctuary is the final resting spot of dozens of Dutch immigrants who burned to death in 1847 on the Phoenix just short of their New World home, and of 268 brand new Nash automobiles that went down on the Senator the weekend of the Black Friday stock market crash in 1929.

The oldest known wreck in the sanctuary is the Gallinipper (a nickname for mosquito). It was built in 1832 for Michael Dousman, the western agent of John Jacob Astor’s fur trading company, and it carried trade goods to the Wisconsin frontier, returning east with loads of furs. One Dousman son, Hercules, would go on to locate Fort Crawford on the Mississippi River and another would found the Wisconsin village that bears the family name. The boat had been modified, Thomsen said, making it unstable. On its final voyage in 1845, it “turned turtle” off the coast of Cleveland, Wis., and settled on the bottom nearly intact. It was found in 1994 when a commercial fishing boat snagged its nets on a mast.

The Schooner Home, which went down in the same area in 1858, may have played a role in transporting fugitive slaves to Canada. Captain James Nugent, an abolitionist, had been caught while using a different boat, and Home was based in Sandusky, Ohio, a noted stop on the Underground Railroad. Thomsen, who researched the ship for its National Register nomination, found no hard proof but lots of intriguing clues. “If you look at the owner of the boat and the warehouses it served, they were owned by abolitionists,’’ Thomsen said. “And if you look at the route, and the fact that it sometimes took longer than it should have (to complete a voyage), Could he have been taking people to Canada? Likely, yes.”

A less heroic tale is told about the sinking of the luxury side wheel steamer Niagara. Green said this type of ship brought thousands of settlers to the Midwestern frontier in the 1840s and 50s. It caught fire and sank off the coast of Belgium, Wisconsin, killing about sixty of the 170 people on board. Some of them died when a panicking former congressman, John Macy, tried to climb into a lifeboat full of women and children and capsized it, killing himself and everyone else.

The steamer Phoenix was just seven miles off the Sheboygan harbor in November 1847 when an overheated engine set the wooden beams on fire. About two hundred immigrants from Holland had endured several hellacious storms on the lower lakes before dying just short of their destination. Whole families perished and survivors, Thomsen said, “swam to shore clutching their burning bibles’’ and went on to found the communities of Oostburg, Wisconsin and Holland, Michigan.

The boat styles tell stories about immigrant life in the Midwest. Immigrants, many of them Norwegian, used their rudimentary carpentry skills to build scow schooners, boxy ships that would ply the smaller ports, such as Algoma, and had such a low draft that they could go up shallow coastal rivers, docking in communities to deliver merchandise and pick up timber and grain.

One of these, the I.A. Johnson was found three years ago by diver Steve Radovan, with barrels still stowed in its hull. This ship took timber cut on Washington Island and transported it to Sheboygan, where it was made into furniture and cabinetry. “Door County didn’t get a railroad until the 1920s, so these ships were the most economical and quickest way to do business in the area,’’ Thomsen said, of the narrow peninsula that divides Lake Michigan from Green Bay.

Other ships, like the Walter B. Allen, were built as “canallers” to carry grain from the Midwest through the narrow locks of the Welland Canal. They were equipped with davits, pulleys, and hinges that let the ship, and its rigging and cargo, fit into the canal. These boats would haul grain from ports in Milwaukee and Chicago to Lake Erie and then up the canal to Lake Ontario. “Then they’d take on coal at the Lake Erie ports and bring it back west,’’ Thomsen explained. “This is what fueled the industrial revolution.”

Thomsen says it’s cool to dive the Walter B. Allen and see the emergency pump still on the deck from its wreck in 1880, adding, “it went down with the ship.” Several railroads set up Lake Michigan rail car ferries to avoid Chicago congestion and speed their cargo onto the Great Plains. One of these ferries, the Pere Marquette 18, sank in 1910 somewhere between Ludington, Michigan and Milwaukee. The wreck killed twenty-seven crew members and passengers and took down twenty-nine rail cars full of coal. It went undiscovered for more than a century. Thomsen said it “was our white whale,’’ until it was found by wreck divers Ken Merryman and Jerry Eliasson in summer 2020.

Locals have been pushing for the sanctuary for more than a decade, and hope it will spur tourism beyond scuba divers. Justin Nickels, mayor of Manitowoc, is enthusiastic about what the sanctuary may mean for tourism at the city’s Wisconsin Maritime Museum, and beyond. “It’s a national park right next to our community,’’ said Nickels. “It will bring the benefits of federal dollars for education, continued research, and the protection of Lake Michigan. I supported it from day one.”

The sanctuary plan hit a roadblock when former President Trump suspended all new federal land projects and former Republican Gov. Scott Walker withdrew his support, saying it could threaten private land rights. With Democrats back in power in Washington and Madison, the sanctuary became reality in summer 2021. Plans are for signage on shore, marker buoys to aid divers, wind and wave buoys so people can plan for weather on the lake, and events that draw attention to the area’s maritime history. A local advisory committee is forming, and the expectation is that NOAA’s mapping of the lake bed will bring more wrecks to light.

Thomsen, of the Wisconsin Historical Society, recently made the national news for discovering a twelve-hundred-year-old Ho Chunk dugout canoe while scuba diving in Madison’s Lake Mendota. But she said that much more powerful equipment is needed to survey the vast expanses of Lake Michigan. (“We don’t do the searching, that’s what NOAA does,’’ she said. “Our only boat is a twenty-one-foot Boston Whaler that’s on loan from Sea Grant.”)

In summer 2021, a NOAA-led survey made stunning images of nine shipwrecks near Point Beach State Park. Rawley Point was a notorious “ship trap,” said Thomsen, as ships seeking the shelter the Wisconsin coastline during storms would plough into its sand bars and founder. Green says the shallow waters and sandy bottom make these more accessible, and is optimistic that more mapping will lead to more history being uncovered. “I hope and believe when we survey the area (via a sonar mapping) we’re going to find shipwrecks that we haven’t found, and some new ones that are totally going to surprise us,’’ he said. ■



Susan Lampert Smith is a freelance science writer from Wisconsin. She previously wrote the On Wisconsin column for the Wisconsin State Journal.

Cover photo of a shipwreck near the Apostle Islands, Wisconsin (NOAA).

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