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State Submerged Resources > Illinois


One of the Great Lakes states, water covers about 2,300 square miles of Illinois (4% of the state). About two-thirds of this area lies in the Lake Michigan waters under the jurisdiction of Illinois. Major rivers include the Illinois River, Mississippi River, Ohio River, and Wabash River. Major lakes include Lake Michigan and Rend Lake.

What is Illinois' maritime history?

Native American cultures in Illinois date to before 12,000 years ago. The first Europeans to see Illinois were the French who established missions and fur trading outposts of the French colonial empire along the Mississippi River and elsewhere. American settlers from southern states migrated up the Mississippi, Ohio, and Wabash rivers to Illinois in the early 1800s while settlers from the northeastern states came after completion of the Erie Canal in 1825. The opening of the Illinois and Michigan Canal in 1848 provided a water route that connected the Mississippi River, the Great Lakes, and other inland waterways for shipping raw materials, goods, and passengers.

What sites are underwater?

In the past, as it is today, travel on the Great Lakes can be hazardous as ships face storms, reefs, and other nautical hazards. Riverboat travel is fraught with a different set of equally dangerous hazards. The historical record indicates thousands of shipwrecks may lie in Illinois waters.

Among these shipwrecks is the Lady Elgin, famous for being the second worst wreck in terms of loss of life on the Great Lakes. Milwaukee's Union Guard, a state militia, commissioned an excursion on the ship to Chicago for a Democratic Party rally and fundraiser on September 7, 1860. The ship left Chicago at 11:30 pm to return 600-700 people to Milwaukee. Within a few hours, the vessel encountered high seas and gale force winds. These conditions caused the schooner Augusta to slam into the the Lady Elgin, gouging a deep hole in the port side. The ship sank and over 430 people on board died.

Wings of the Wind, another casualty, was a two-masted carrier. On May 12, 1866, the ship was headed to Chicago with 240 tons of coal when a much larger ship appeared out of the early morning darkness and struck the Wings of the Wind. The other vessel, a bark named H.P. Baldwin suffered little damage, and continued on course. The crew of Wings of the Wind abandoned ship. Fortunately, the crew of the Baldwin heard their cries and returned to pluck the crew from the rescue boat.

Another historic wreck near Chicago, and a popular site for divers, is the wreck of the tugboat Tacoma. The boat was built in 1894 and sank on November 4, 1929 while towing two scows from Chicago to South Chicago. The vessel sprang a leak and sank within five minutes. The crew barely managed to unleash the towing cables and climb aboard one of the scows. At the time it went down, the Tacoma was the oldest working tugboat in Chicago.

Who takes care of Illinois's underwater archeological sites?

The Illinois Historic Preservation Agency is responsible for regulating, exploring, excavating, and surveying archeological resources on state lands. The Agency works with local maritime and diving groups to locate, inventory, and research historic shipwrecks in state waters. The materials and records associated with these state resources are the property of the state and are managed by the Illinois State Museum.

What permits do I need to study shipwrecks?

Permits for exploring, excavating or collecting archeological resources protected by the state are issued by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency after consultation with the land managing agency. No permit is required for visiting, diving on, viewing, recording, photographing, mapping, drawing, or otherwise recording sites so long as the site is not disturbed and nothing is collected.

What laws are there about underwater archeology in Illinois?

The Illinois Archaeological and Paleontological Resources Protection Act is codified in Chapter 20 of the Illinois Compiled Statutes 3435/.01, et seq., and relevant regulations can be found at Illinois Administrative Code Title 17, 4190.101, et seq.

These laws encourage the preservation and protection of archeological resources on both public and private lands, and discourage their exploitation and destruction by vandalism, looting, commercial development, and construction. The state considers its archeological resources as scientific and educational preserves held in trust for future generations.

Related Websites:

Illinois Archaeological Survey
Underwater Archaeological Society of Chicago
Association for Great Lakes Maritime History