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Shipwreck Trifecta

Three shipwrecks in three days in Lake Michigan

By Aaron Conklin, Wisconsin Sea Grant

They were only out there to survey a single shipwreck.

And then, in the space of three days, they found three more.

Yes, that’s right. Three.

Caitlin Zant and Tamara Thomsen, maritime archaeologists funded by Wisconsin Sea Grant and the Wisconsin Historical Society, headed onto the Wisconsin waters of Lake Michigan this summer to survey the S.C. Baldwin, a stone barge lost in a 1908 storm.  

Over the course of the first three days, perfect weather prevailed. But on the fourth day, the skies clouded, and small-craft advisories were issued. If the crew were to work at all, it would have to be close to shore. 

They decided to take the opportunity to follow up on something intriguing. Several years earlier, Thomsen met Suzze Johnson, a retiree who owns a powered parachute, an ultralight plane that allows her to fly in an open cockpit several hundred feet above the lake. Johnson contacted Thomsen because she kept seeing what looked like shipwrecks but was unsure.

“We’ve trained her to be better with using GPS and to take pictures that include the shoreline so we can geo-reference what she’s showing us,” said Thomsen. “She sent us four to five different sites, so we thought, ‘Hey, let’s just cruise the shoreline and see if we can track down some of these numbers.’”

Johnson’s GPS calculations on the first potential site were off by 75 feet, but there it was—a new shipwreck. The next site was dead on—another new shipwreck.  The first appears to be the schooner Lookout, a 127-foot vessel that ran aground in quicksand in 1877. The second is most likely the Alaska, an 85-foot scow-schooner lost in 1890. 

Giddy with the excitement of new discovery, the dive team continued its journey back. That’s when it happened.

“We were just going to head back,” Zant said. “Then, Tami happens to look down at the scanner, and there’s this beautiful image of an intact bow of a ship. We’re all like, ‘Whoa, what was that?’”

“That” proved to be one of the most intact shipwrecks the team had ever seen in shallow water—no mussels coating the hull, no cladophora waving in the current. 

Zant and Thomsen suspect the salvaged wreck is either the La Salle, a grain schooner that only spent a year in service before wrecking in 1875, or the awkwardly named Tubal Cain, a three-masted bark that sank in 1867. 

The pair said shifting sands and water levels are likely responsible for both the unexpected shipwreck jackpot and their unusually pristine state.

“It’s good for them to be uncovered—now people can see them,” Thomsen said. “But at the same time, having them covered with sand helps the preservation aspect.”

Before the dive season ends in October, the researchers hope to collect detailed information on all three new wrecks to create site plans to submit for designation to the National Register of Historic Places. Given that this portion of Lake Michigan’s coastline is currently under consideration to become a NOAA national marine sanctuary, based in part on longtime Sea Grant support for the maritime preservation work in the area, the timing is particularly apropos.  

“What an amazing thing,” said Zant.  “Three days, three new shipwrecks.”

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