CHICAGO – In October 1887, the steamer Vernon set sail from Michigan toward Chicago with about 50 people on board. Likely overloaded with cargo, she never made it.
A “terrible gale” entrapped the vessel, the Chicago Tribune reported. “A fearful sea was running and all hands are believed to have perished.”
In the days after the wreck, a number of bodies were picked up by fishing tugs near Two Rivers, Wisconsin. The dead reported by the Tribune included the Beau brothers, Martin and Henry, of Chicago; E.H. Borland, a traveling salesman from Milwaukee; and Charles Curtis, a cabin boy found with a letter from his mother back in Germany “carefully preserved” in his pocket. Others were identified in the paper only by their height, hair color, personal effects and scars. One person survived the wreck: a crewman named Axel Stone.
The Vernon’s fate was not unusual; in decades of Great Lakes shipping, more than 2,000 commercial vessels sank while traversing Lake Michigan’s waters.
Last month, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced it has designated 962 square miles of the lake from Port Washington, Wisconsin, to southern Kewaunee County as a national marine sanctuary. The Wisconsin Shipwreck Coast National Marine Sanctuary contains the remains of 36 known shipwrecks, including the Vernon, and up to 59 potential shipwrecks that have yet to be discovered.
The sanctuary is the first in Lake Michigan and only the second in the Great Lakes. Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary in Lake Huron, off the Michigan coast, was established in 2000.
Researchers, shipwreck enthusiasts and coastal community leaders hope that the new sanctuary will spark renewed public interest not just in the wrecks themselves, but in the waterways that made them.
“For almost all of human history, the world has been connected by water, really, and separated by land,” said Russ Green, NOAA’s regional coordinator. “This is what makes the Great Lakes so special.”
Superhighways of their time
The Vernon sank in deep water, and it was not until the summer of 1969 that John Steele and Kent Bellrichard discovered the wreck. Steele, a banker from Waukegan who died in 2016, and Bellrichard, a retired military electronic technician, hunted shipwrecks using surplus military sonar technology, said Brendon Baillod, a maritime historian based in Madison.
They found the Vernon under about 200 feet of water north of Two Rivers, well preserved by the lake’s cool, fresh water. Inside the wreck are wooden chalices stacked inside crates, bottles of wine, barrels of potatoes and apples, and 400 boxes of fish, according to researchers.
The Vernon is one of many shipwrecks that Tamara Thomsen, one of two underwater archaeologists for the state of Wisconsin, has dived.
Her work is all about connecting with the past.
“You read books and things about it,” Thomsen said. “But it’s really exciting to actually dive on a shipwreck and understand the history of it, and how it went down, and be able to examine it for yourself.”
Ships on the Great Lakes sailed loaded with iron, grain, lumber and coal, often into the late fall and winter, without modern navigation technology or weather forecasting. Some, like the Vernon, carried passengers.
The lakes were the superhighways of their time, and risks came with the territory.
“All of the commerce that built America, that built the industrial infrastructure of America, came through the Great Lakes,” said Baillod. “When you looked out off Milwaukee on any given day, you’d see a hundred ships just out on the horizon. Schooners, steamers, boats of all kinds. You don’t see that anymore.”
The remains of many of those same boats now lie beneath the Great Lakes or their beaches, after running into dangerous waters or simply being abandoned by their owners.
Sailing was even riskier than other common trades like working in a tannery or foundry, neither of which were particularly safe, Baillod said. He estimates around 50,000 sailors died in the Great Lakes between 1850 and 1900.
Not all of them died in wrecks; some were felled by other occupational hazards like falling into holds or from masts during routine work.
“When you went out, you knew you were going to run into trouble. You knew it,” Baillod said.
But sailors were admired for their bravado, and they got paid in cash.
Most of Lake Michigan’s wrecked ships didn’t founder in the middle of the lake like the Vernon did. Instead, they were forced ashore by storms, sometimes onto rocky or uncharted shoals.
On the ocean, a schooner could sail in a storm for days before the storm blew itself out, Baillod said. “If you try that on Lake Michigan, you’ll end up in someone’s cornfield in an hour or two.”
Crew members would be forced to scramble up the rigging and into the masts, sometimes the only part of the ship that remained above water. Eventually, they’d get too exhausted or too frozen to hold on, and they’d fall into the lake to their deaths. Even if a ship had been forced only a few hundred yards from shore, there was no swimming to the beach in 7-foot, stormy waters.
‘Not a renewable source’
In the 1960s and ’70s, encouraged by treasure lore and TV shows like “Sea Hunt,” a generation of divers started looking for the Great Lakes’ lost ships.
Using scuba gear, sonar technology and newspaper records and archives, they sought out wrecks that, in many cases, hadn’t been seen by other human beings for half a century or more. With few exceptions, the divers didn’t find treasure. But they did find things like pottery, or crocks of butter, and even Christmas trees on the Rouse Simmons, the storied Chicago schooner that went down in a storm in 1912.
The artifacts on the ships are windows into the past, ways to understand what life might’ve looked like more than a century ago.
In the early years, divers often took souvenirs off wrecks.
Bob Lijewski, who started diving shipwrecks in the 1980s and is now a director on the Wisconsin Underwater Archaeology Association board, said that by the 1980s, “divers started realizing that shipwrecks are not a renewable source.”
Under Wisconsin state law, it has been illegal since 1987 to remove an artifact from a shipwreck that is more than 50 years old.
The Lake Michigan area was nominated for sanctuary status by a coalition of national, state and local individuals and organizations. In 2014, then-Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker backed the sanctuary designation. But in 2018, Walker rescinded his support, citing concerns about federal intervention, The Sheboygan Press reported at the time.
Wisconsin’s current governor, Tony Evers, revived the nomination in 2019. The sanctuary designation will officially take effect after a short waiting period.
NOAA will comanage the sanctuary with the state of Wisconsin. The state’s maritime archaeology program has stewarded the shipwrecks for decades. With the designation comes federal funding allocated by Congress for use in education, infrastructure and public outreach. NOAA also has access to increased mapping capabilities that some hope will aid in finding yet-to-be-discovered wrecks.
The National Marine Sanctuary System includes more than 600,000 square miles of underwater parks from Washington State to American Samoa. There are 15 national marine sanctuaries and two marine national monuments.
Many divers and shipwreck enthusiasts describe Lake Michigan’s shipwrecks as time capsules, and some of the wrecks are so intact that they do appear as if they could sail away if they somehow rose to the lake’s surface.
But as archaeological resources, the wrecks have limited time. Steel wrecks are corroding, and invasive quagga mussels have colonized the surfaces of both steel and wooden shipwrecks, speeding degradation.
Some wrecks also have anchor damage from dive boats, and Green, the NOAA coordinator, said that the administration will expand upon Wisconsin’s existing system of mooring buoys, which mark the wrecks and create safe descent lines for divers, to prevent further damage.
Green emphasized that NOAA wants to preserve the wrecks but also encourage people to explore the sanctuary.
“People will protect what they value,” he said. “So you want to get them on the water.”
Value of the lakeshore
Thomsen, the underwater archaeologist, said that when she tells people what she does, they often wonder where she dives or what her job entails. She hopes the sanctuary will be a “root of discovery” for people to connect with the lake and the maritime history of their communities.
She emphasized that people don’t have to dive to connect with the wrecks and their history; some shallow shipwrecks, for example, can be visited by kayak.
Thomsen and Baillod both say that things have begun to shift in some places: Communities that had come to see the lake as a hindrance to travel, something they had to get around to go elsewhere, are now recognizing the value of having a lakeshore again.
“Milwaukee and Chicago would not be there were it not for Lake Michigan, and in many ways they’ve become alienated from the lake,” Baillod said. “The lake is just something there to go fishing on, or go swimming on, or what have you; to dump waste into, in some instances. The lake is the raison d’être of these cities.”