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Great Lakes have history beyond Edmund Fitzgerald

By Ben Rodgers

NORTHEAST WISCONSIN – At 6 p.m. CST Tuesday, Nov. 10, the bell from the most famous shipwreck on the Great Lakes will ring in remembrance in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

On that day 45 years ago in 1975, the Edmund Fitzgerald and her crew of 29 were lost in the icy waters of Lake Superior.

Though Gordon Lightfoot etched the loss of the Edmund Fitzgerald into consciousness with his famous song, the wreck has no ties to Wisconsin, other than leaving from Superior.

However, that doesn’t mean Lake Michigan has been forgiving to sailors.

“We knew there’s over 750 historic losses in Wisconsin waters,” said Tamara Thomsen, maritime archaeologist with the State of Wisconsin State Historic Preservation Office.

Though Lightfoot sang of the November gales coming early, Thomsen said studies show September and October can be just as rough as November and December on the Great Lakes.

The Christmas Tree Ship

The Rouse Simmons, a 205-ton, three-masted schooner that had disappeared beneath the waves of Lake Michigan in a gale in November 1912, doesn’t have a song. But it does have a play.

The wreck, near Manitowoc, is the final resting place of 16 souls who perished when the ship containing Christmas trees from the UP was en route to Chicago and hit a storm Nov. 22.

The Rouse Simmons tied up at the dock is pictured in this undated photo. Wisconsin Historical Society Photo

Last seen by the Kewaunee Life-Saving Station, the Rouse Simmons was flying a distress flag 5 miles offshore while being driven southward by a northwest gale.

With no chance of catching the fleeing vessel, the Kewaunee station’s captain telephoned the Two Rivers’ Life-Saving Station, 25 miles to the south.

The station immediately launched a lifeboat to intercept the distressed vessel and bring her crew to safety. When the lifeboat motored onto the lake, however, the Rouse Simmons had vanished.

“It became a ghost ship for many years,” Thomsen said. “There were Christmas trees pulled up in nets around the region. There were Christmas trees on the beaches around Rawley Point. Eventually in the ’70s, a diver named Kent Bellrichard was looking for the ship and he discovered it.”

Nowadays, she said a tugboat delivers Christmas trees in Manitowoc, and ceremonial Christmas tree deliveries are made in Chicago and Milwaukee.

S.S. Milwaukee

On Oct. 22, 1929, the S.S. Milwaukee was ferrying train cars across Lake Michigan to Michigan when it entered a historically tempestuous Northeaster gale.

About 3 miles east of Milwaukee was the last time she was seen as the lives of 46 sailors were lost.

“The legend of this is Captain Robert ‘Heavy Weather’ McCay kept to a strict timetable, went out in a storm that was too much for him and was never heard from again,” Thomsen said.

There was little concern until she was past 36 hours due and the following day sailors spotted debris, rubble and bodies by Racine.

Three Sisters

The most lives lost in a wreck on the Bay of Green Bay came when the Three Sisters sank within a week of the Rouse Simmons going under.

The ship was 69 feet long and hauling hay when caught in a gale that led to the surf overtaking the schooner, Thomsen said.

She said Captain Phillip Klumb attempted to swim to shore, near Dyckesville, as the boat was taking on water, but drowned.

A second crewman died of exposure and a third died when a rescue boat capsized, Thomsen said.

Ship searchers

The state classifies shipwrecks as any body of a boat found underwater, and there are many left undiscovered.

“Out of 750 losses in Wisconsin waters, we only know a little better than where 200 of them are,” Thomsen said.
Each year, two or three wrecks are discovered on Lake Michigan, she said.

In September, a crew from Minnesota found the Pere Marquette No. 18, another railroad car ferry that sank Sept. 10, 1910, when 27 lives were lost near Sheboygan.

It was considered to be the largest remaining undiscovered shipwreck on Lake Michigan, she said.

“We have a number of ships that are reported discovered each year,” Thomsen said. “Fish finders or bottom sonar are better with each round of technology that comes out. It certainly will help everyone to learn a little bit more about the maritime history of the state. If people find something, they should report it to our office, and we do our best to go out and evaluate them every year.”

She said one ship searcher, Suzze Johnson, from Two Rivers, dons a self-propelled parachute and searches the eastern shore of Lake Michigan discovering new wrecks every year.

Wrecks have also been discovered on the not-so-great lakes in Wisconsin.

Days gone by

With the advent of new technology, the Great Lakes have become considerably safer for ships, said Dean Haen, director of the Port of Green Bay.

“Having GPS is a benefit, having better sonar so they don’t run into another vessel, they can see potential hazards well in advance so they can avoid them,” Haen said. “Additionally, weather forecasts are more accurate and able to be received onboard right as things are changing. They have internet connectivity.”

Ships navigating Death’s Door in Door County now are able to know where hazards are and aren’t, unlike 100 years ago when they could come in blind.

He said each year the Port of Green Bay sees between 175 and 200 ships more than 500 feet long, each giving an arrival window of 8 hours, depending on the weather.

This year, nearly 2 million tons of raw material will make its way through the Bay of Green Bay, benefiting the local economy as the industry did a century ago, Haen said.

“The Port of Green Bay adds a value to the Green Bay area of $147 million a year, that was our last analysis,” Haen said. “It is important and things have changed. We’re moving just as much goods on the Great Lakes as we used to, but less vessels because they’re larger, and the types of material moved are large volume materials, liquid or dry. You don’t really see finished goods moving on the Great Lakes at this time. You see those things moving by trucks or train.”

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