Hidden Treasure Trove of Shipwrecks May Become Sanctuary in Lake Michigan

Oct 16, 2017

There are thousands of shipwrecks in the Great Lakes - many of which haven’t been seen by human eyes for more than a century. The area off the coast of Ozaukee, Sheboygan and Manitowoc counties is home to 37 known wrecks, and researchers say there could be as many as 80 undiscovered shipwrecks.

That’s why the Wisconsin Historical Society and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are pushing to make the area a national marine sanctuary. The move would make the 1,075 square mile area the first marine sanctuary in Lake Michigan.

The Northerner sunk off the coast of Port Washington in 1868.
Credit Tamara Thomsen / Wisconsin Historical Society

"It’s between the Milwaukee-Ozaukee County line and all the way up to the north end of Manitowoc County. If you look at those shipwrecks as a subset of all that we have in Wisconsin, it really tells our story here, our maritime history of Wisconsin," says Tamara Thomsen, a maritime archaeologist with the Wisconsin Historical Society's Maritime Preservation and Archaeology program.

Thomsen explains that part of the reason this area has so many ship wrecks is simply because Milwaukee was a major port in the Midwest. 

She says, "It’s hard to imagine now, but before interstate highways and even before train systems, all of our products were brought in and out by ship."

The Rouse Simmons was a schooner that transported Christmas trees across Lake Michigan.
Credit Tamara Thomsen / Wisconsin Historical Society

While some of these wrecks have been looted (an act made illegal by the Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1987), many are essentially time capsules that reveal old shipping practices and what life was like on these crafts.

According to Thomsen, creating a sanctuary would give these wrecks in Lake Michigan an extra layer of federal protection, which could help researchers preserve and research the area in more depth. 

One of the many shipwrecks located in the proposed sanctuary.
Credit Tamara Thomsen / Wisconsin Historical Society

"In order to enact the Abandoned Shipwreck Act, all of the shipwrecks as they're discovered need to be evaluated - usually by [my] office - to determine whether they are eligible for the national register of historic places," she explains. 

To qualify for the Act, the ship has to meet a number of criteria. Among other qualifications, it has to be relatively intact and have some historical value or an association with a significant person or event. Right now, the state applies for this protection on a ship-by-ship basis and it takes a lot of time. 

"We do about one shipwreck a year, we sometimes will get as many as three done in a year to look at, and that's state wide. So what the sanctuary will do is it will provide those protections as a blanket to this area," she says. 

CORRECTION: This article originally stated that the proposed sanctuary would be 1,075 square feet, it is actually 1,075 square miles.