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Underwater Archaeology Kids' Corner

Shipwrecks, Shipwrecks Everywhere

Sturgeon Bay is a boneyard for vessels
that carried limestone. At Bull Head Point,
the skeletons of three shipwrecks can be
seen sticking out of the water. Underwater
Archaeology, WHS

There are over seven hundred shipwrecks in Wisconsin.
But why did so many sink? First of all, we need to remember that thousands of ships sailed in and out of Wisconsin's ports. Some older, rundown ships were abandoned in shallow water or intentionally (in ten shun ul lee, on purpose) set on fire. Other ships had more exciting endings.

Ships sank for just about every reason you can imagine. Thick fog caused low visibility (viz uh bil uh tee, being able to see) and ships could run aground or into each other. Captains made mistakes in navigating that caused their ships to sink. Underwater obstacles sank many ships on the Mississippi River and other rivers. Some ships were old and leaky, while others had problems with their engines that caused explosions. But of the many reasons a ship could sink, probably the most terrifying was fire.  


Some believe that Death's
Door got its name after a large
Indian war party was destroyed
there in a sudden storm. Early
French and American travelers
heard and repeated the story
about "a hundred Indians dashed
against these rocks and killed
in a single storm." Some think
that French fur traders spread
this story to keep others from
coming to the area. In fact, the
name Death's Door comes
from the French name, Porte
des Morts. Due to its strong
currents, fierce winds, and
rocky shores, Death's Door is
definitely known as a killer of
ships. These conditions have
been hazardous (haz ar dus,
very dangerous) for all ships,
but especially for sailing vessels.
Lighthouses built on Plum
Island (1848 and 1896) and
Pilot Island (1850) helped, but
hundreds of vessels have been
lost or damaged in the Death's
Door area.

In September 1856, the steam powered ship Niagara left Sheboygan carrying passengers and cargo for Port Washington. Not long after leaving the dock, fire broke out. The engines soon quit, bringing the vessel's giant paddlewheels to a halt. Like many other boats of the day, the Niagara carried no life preservers. The crew began breaking off cabin doors and throwing them, and other buoyant items, into the water. As smoke and flames engulfed (en gulft, swallowed up) the boat five miles offshore, passengers panicked, causing one of Wisconsin's deadliest transportation disasters. Despite rescue efforts, over sixty people died. 

The phrase "gales of November" is often used to describe the fierce storms that hit the Great Lakes in the late fall. Heavy winds, blinding snowstorms, huge waves, and cold temperatures make October and November the most dangerous time of year for sailors on the Great Lakes. Shipping lanes close during the winter months and don't reopen until spring.

One cold October night in 1891, the schooner (a type of sailing ship) Forest entered Death's Door passage at the tip of the Door Peninsula. A gale (strong storm with high winds) struck and drove the ship onto the reef (rocky ridge near the surface of the water) at Pilot Island. The next day, the crew rowed to shore and the safety of the lighthouse.

The Gilmore, Nichols, and Forest
wrecked at Pilot Island. This
unique photograph reveals the
dangers of passing through Death's
Door. Great Lakes Marine Collection,
Milwaukee Public Library/Wisconsin
Marine Historical Society

The following fall, two more schooners- the J.E. Gilmore and the A.P. Nichols-wrecked at the same spot less than two weeks apart. On October 17, the Gilmore entered the passage in heavy, shifting winds and was blown onto the reef. The crew waited out the storm on board. On October 28, fierce winds and blinding snow struck the Nichols, tore apart her rigging, and drove her onto the rocks near the shipwrecked Gilmore and the Forest. In a dangerous rescue, the lighthouse crew helped the sailors leap from the rolling Nichols onto the icy deck of the wrecked Forest to reach Pilot Island. Because of the bravery of the lifesaving crew, not one person was lost in all three wrecks!


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