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State Submerged Resources > Wisconsin


One of the Great Lakes states, Wisconsin has shorelines along both Lake Michigan and Lake Superior with jurisdiction over 9,355 square miles of the Great Lakes. Wisconsin has nearly 15,000 inland lakes and more than 30,000 miles of rivers and streams. Major rivers include the Chippewa River, the Mississippi River, the St. Croix River, and the Wisconsin River. About 17% of the state (11,190 square miles) is covered by water.

What sites are underwater?

Wisconsin's waterways have been used for transportation, fishing, agriculture, power-generation, and recreation beginning with Native Americans, followed by European and American explorers and settlers. As a result, there are a wide range of underwater archeological sites, including a 1,800 year old dugout canoe, an inundated 18th century fur trading site, and 19th and 20th century shipwrecks. The cold freshwater in Wisconsin's lakes have preserved many of these underwater sites in pristine condition. A few examples of the over 700 shipwrecks in Wisconsin waters include the following.

Launched in 1896, the Appomattox was the largest wooden bulk carrier ever constructed on the Great Lakes. A triple-expansion steam engine propelled the vessel and its cargo (3,000 tons of iron ore) through the water. The Appomattox typically also towed a large wooden schooner barge. On November 2, 1905, with poor visibility conditions, the Appomattox towing the Santiago ran aground. Rescue crews managed to save the Santiago, but the Appomattox suffered too much damage and sank off Atwater Beach in Shorewood. This site is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The schooner Daniel Lyons was designed to carry the maximum amount of cargo through the Welland Canal locks, leaving mere inches between the ship and the locks. Launched in 1873, the Daniel Lyons carried grain out of ports on Lake Michigan and returned with coal from ports on Lakes Erie and Ontario. On October 17, 1878, the Kate Gillet rammed the Daniel Lyons's starboard side, cutting the vessel almost in half. The ships locked together for almost fifteen minutes, before they managed to disengage. The Kate Gillet limped into port, but the Daniel Lyons sank.

Launched in 1866, the schooner Iris served a long 47 years on the waters of the Great Lakes. The Iris ran aground and wrecked at Jackson Harbor in 1913. The Iris is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The SS Milwaukee, launched in 1902, was a train ferry that shuttled up to 30 railroad cars back and forth across Lake Michigan from Milwaukee to the Grand Trunk Railway dock in Grand Haven. On October 22, 1929, the Milwaukee set off in a storm for Grand Haven. The ship was last seen pitching and rolling heavily, and it failed to arrive at its destination, sinking with the loss of all persons onboard. The shipwreck was located at the bottom of Lake Michigan in 1972 and profiled in an episode of Deep Sea Detectives on the History Channel in 2006.

A two-masted scow-schooner, the Ocean Wave was launched in 1860. An unusual sight on the Great Lakes, the Ocean Wave had an eagle figurehead. On September 23, 1869, the ship struck something in the water and began to sink. The crew abandoned ship and rowed 12 miles to shore. This vessel is listed the on the National Register of Historic Places.

Who takes care of Wisconsin's underwater archeological sites?

The Wisconsin Historical Society is dedicated to preserving the state's historic shipwrecks and other underwater archeological sites, and facilitating responsible diver access to the sites. The Wisconsin Historical Society and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources together administer the state's program for submerged cultural resources and coordinate activities relating to the preservation, management and public use of the resources. This includes designating bottomland preserves and setting rules related to the use of bottomland preserves and objects removed from underwater archeological sites. The State Archaeologist is responsible for issuing permits.

What permits do I need to study shipwrecks?

Wisconsin holds title to objects and data related to archeological sites on state lands. If you wish to engage in field archeology on state land, you must apply for a permit. Your application must establish that you are qualified to perform the work. You must also obtain the written permission of the state agency with jurisdiction over the land. Divers may not disturb or remove artifacts or structure when visiting any historic shipwreck or other archeological site on public lands in Wisconsin.

If you wish to dive within the waters of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, you must apply for a permit from the National Lakeshore.

Are there any underwater parks in Wisconsin?

The Wisconsin Maritime Trails Program is carried out by the Wisconsin Historical Society in partnership with the University of Wisconsin's Sea Grant Institute. The program includes shipwrecks with mooring buoys, historic markers, lighthouses, museums, historic vessels, and waterfront parks open to the public. In addition, it maintains a shipwreck database and shipwreck video clips, both accessible on the Internet. Apostle Islands National Lakeshore includes submerged historic docks and shipwrecks open to divers who have a permit.

What laws concern underwater archeology in Wisconsin?

Laws about the State Historical Society and the Historic Preservation Program are codified in Chapter 44, Subchapters I and II of the Wisconsin Statutes. These laws emphasize that the state's archeological heritage is among its most important assets and that is in the public interest of the state to engage in a comprehensive program of historic preservation for the education, inspiration, pleasure, and enrichment of its citizens.

Related Websites:

Wisconsin's Great Lakes Shipwrecks
Great Lakes Shipwreck Preservation Society
Great Lakes Shipwreck Research Foundation
Wisconsin Underwater Archeology Association