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Wisconsin’s Shipwreck Coast Gets National Recognition

Wisconsin’s Shipwreck Coast Gets National Recognition

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By Susan Lampert Smith

October 22, 2021

Lake Michigan sanctuary holds 36 wrecks, with another 60 undiscovered 

Wisconsin’s east coast received National Marine Sanctuary Status earlier this summer, protecting 936 square miles of lake and 36 known underwater wrecks, many of them designated as underwater archaeological sites. Experts believe there are dozens more shipwrecks awaiting discovery as the lake’s cold, fresh water preserves the wrecks in pristine condition. The sanctuary covers the coastal waters between Kewaunee and Port Washington, including the ports of Two Rivers, Manitowoc and Sheboygan.

Former Gov. Scott Walker opposed the National Marine Sanctuary Status, but the underwater park was supported by current Gov. Tony Evers and the communities along the lakeshore. Here’s a look at some of the shipwrecks, which tell the story of the national importance of Lake Michigan in helping settle and build the Midwest.

The Christmas Tree ship, the Rouse Simmons, Went Down Off Manitowoc

One of the best known wrecks in the area is that of the schooner Rouse Simmons, which went down in a snowstorm in 1912 while carrying a load of Christmas trees from Michigan to Chicago. All 16 people on board died, including lumberjacks headed back to Chicago for the winter.  Captain Herman Schuenemann was beloved in Chicago, known as Captain Santa because he gave away Christmas trees to the poor and to churches. The exact location of the wreck was unknown for 60 years, although for many years evergreens washed up on the coast between Manitowoc and Two Rivers. The wreck was discovered off Rawley Point by divers in the 1970s and is now a popular dive site. Divers report some of the trees still hold their needles.

The Schooner Home May Have Transported Slaves to Freedom

One of the oldest wrecks in the sanctuary, the sailing ship Home, went down between Manitowoc and Sheboygan in 1858 when it collided with another ship in dense fog. Its captain James Nugent was an abolitionist, and originally operated out of Sandusky, Ohio, an important terminus on the Underground Railroad. Many of his customers were also against slavery and it is believed he transported fugitive slaves to Canada, although he was never caught. The location of the Home was unknown until divers discovered it in 1981. It is largely intact on the floor of Lake Michigan off Manitowoc. The captain and crew were rescued by the other ship, so no lives were lost.

More than 190 Die When the Steamer Phoenix Burned Off the Sheboygan Coast

The steamer Phoenix was just seven miles off the Sheboygan harbor in November 1847 when an overheated engine set the wooden beams on fire. The ship carried as many as 250 people, many of them immigrant families arriving to settle in the territory that became Wisconsin. About 40 people were saved in the lifeboats but another 190 to 250 perished. The smoking hull was towed to Sheboygan Harbor, where it sank. It is visible in about eight feet of water off the Sheboygan public boat ramp.

Onlookers Watched as a Storm Wrecked the Toledo Off Port Washington

Only two of the 80 people on board the steamer Toledo survived when the ship was hit by a sudden summer storm just yards off the pier in Port Washington in 1856. Onlookers watched as the ship tried to set an anchor, but the chain fouled and the ship ran ashore on the beach. The wreckage littered the shoreline and the ship’s smokestack and machinery are visible in about 20 feet of water off Port Washington.

The elegant Vernon lasted just one year before sinking off Two Rivers

The steamer Vernon was considered the most elegant boat on the lakes, and was known for its relative speed in transporting passengers and cargo between Manistique, MI, and Chicago. However, sailors who saw its launch in 1886 predicted that the deep draft and narrow hull would make it unstable when fully loaded.They were proved right a year later, in October 1887, when it hit a northwest gale between Frankfort and Two Rivers. Waves swamped the cargo hold, and extinguished the boiler fire. It sank off Rawley Point in 200 feet of water, killing an estimated 48 people. It was rediscovered in1969 and underwater archeologists from the Wisconsin Historical Society reported finding wooden chalices stacked inside crates, bottles of wine, barrels of potatoes and apples, and 400 boxes of fish.

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