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Wisconsin National Register of Historic Places

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Historical Collections of the Great Lakes, Bowling Green State University

Appomattox Shipwreck
Off Atwater Beach, Shorewood, Milwaukee County
Builder: James Davidson
Date of construction: 1896

The Appomattox, the largest wooden steam bulk freighter ever to ply the Great Lakes, embodies an important period in the economic and maritime history of the Midwest. Her period of operation (1896-1905) overlapped with profound changes in the technology, organization, and scale of industrial activity in the Great Lake region. An increasing anomaly during her career, this wooden steamer competed successfully with larger modern steel ships. The vessel is the product of master shipbuilder and successful maritime entrepreneur, Captain James Davidson, of Bay City, Michigan. At 319 feet in length, the Appomattox is, in terms of sheer size, Davidson's most ambitious steam bulk freighter and one of the last he built. Constructed in 1896, the Appomattox carried industrial commodities, predominately iron ore and coal, back and forth across the Great Lakes between 1896 and 1905.

On November 2, 1905, the vessel ran aground near Atwater beach in Milwaukee. Declared a total loss, the vessel's cargo and some of its machinery were salvaged. Today, the bottom and sides of the vessel retain excellent integrity, with long areas of the bilge fully intact. Resting in approximately 15 to 20 feet of water, and flattened by nearly a century of wind, waves, and ice, the Appomattox's steel-strapped wooden hull is well-preserved, revealing a host of engineering details not visible on more intact wrecks.

James Davidson constantly refined the art of large wooden ship construction and built several of the largest wooden bulk freighters in the history of the Great Lakes, indeed some of the longest ever built in the world. The remains of Appomattox offer archaeologists and historians of technology an opportunity to explore the engineering methods of a master shipbuilder, whose career successfully straddled the transformation from wood to steel shipping on the Great Lakes.

State and federal laws protect this shipwreck. Divers may not remove artifacts or structure when visiting this shipwreck site. Removing, defacing, displacing or destroying artifacts or sites is a crime.

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