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During the 19th and 20th centuries, tens of thousands of ships launched in the Great Lakes. There were wooden schooners, steamships built of steel, bulk carriers and propeller-driven passenger ships, all of them moving everything from people to coal to manufactured goods that helped to build the American Midwest.

It’s believed that about 1,200 of these ships sank in Lake Michigan. Several hundred foundered in the lake’s waters off Wisconsin, which reportedly has more individually listed shipwrecks on the National Register of Historic Places than any other state.

Lake Michigan’s cold, fresh water helped to preserve at least a few dozen of the wrecks with what the federal government calls “an unusual degree of archaeological and architectural integrity.” For that reason, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has been working toward the creation of a Wisconsin Shipwreck Coast National Marine Sanctuary since it was proposed in December 2014 by the Wisconsin governor’s office. The sanctuary includes the cities of Two Rivers, Manitowoc, Sheboygan and Port Washington.

The Wisconsin Shipwreck Coast National Marine Sanctuary includes the waters off Sheboygan.

The Wisconsin Shipwreck Coast National Marine Sanctuary includes the waters off Sheboygan.

The announcement in June that NOAA had reached the point in the process when it publishes a final rule for the new sanctuary left those cities’ mayors and others celebrating. The sanctuary designation is expected to take effect following a final review by the governor and the U.S. Congress, adding the new sanctuary to the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary and its “Shipwreck Alley” that was designated the first sanctuary in the Great Lakes two decades ago. “This National Marine Sanctuary would be only the second of its kind in the country,” Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers said.

The cities where the new marine sanctuary will be include numerous marinas and yacht clubs, along with Burger Boat Company, a historical fixture itself with operations dating to 1863. The Wisconsin Shipwreck Coast National Marine Sanctuary will span 962 square miles and protect 36 shipwrecks of “exceptional historic, archaeological and recreational value,” as well as what researchers believe to be as many as 60 more shipwrecks that have yet to be discovered in the same waters.

Of the 36 known shipwreck sites in the sanctuary, 21 are on the National Register of Historic Places. Reading the histories of the wrecks is like reading the history of U.S. shipbuilding and technology itself.Wisconsin’s oldest known shipwreck—the Gallinipper—is here. She’s a 95-foot two-masted schooner built in Ohio in 1833 that saw use in the fur trade. She foundered in 1851 and still has her hull intact today.There’s the Continental, a 1,506-ton wooden steam barge that the George Presley shipyard in Cleveland built in 1882. She ran aground in 1904, but her compound steam engine remains upright and intact.

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Also there is the Floretta, a 260-ton, two-masted schooner built in Detroit in 1868. She was the rare schooner that carried iron ore, and when she went down off Manitowoc in 1885, much of that ore covered her broken hull. It’s still there today.

The Rouse Simmons went down a couple days before Thanksgiving in 1912 while carrying Christmas trees to Chicago. She was a 205-ton, three-masted double centerboard schooner built at Milwaukee’s Allen McLellen and Co. shipyard. Today, she’s upright and intact in 165 feet of water—still holding her cargo of evergreens.

And there is the Niagara, a 225-foot wooden sidewheel steamer built in Buffalo, New York, in 1846. Her harrowing demise came when she caught fire and burned to the waterline near Port Washington in 1956, killing more than 60 passengers. All of these wrecks embody not only a great deal of U.S. shipbuilding history, but also the story of trade and commerce that spanned multiple states and generations. As Manitowoc Mayor Justin Nickels put it, “The protection of this body of water and the shipwrecks will memorialize the rich history of our community and the men and women who built it .” 

This article was originally published in the September 2021 issue.

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