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Underwater Archaeology in Wisconsin

 Due to its sizable shoreline (860 miles on lakes Michigan and Superior!), waterborne exploration, commerce, and passenger transportation have had a tremendous effect on Wisconsin's development. The state's early settlement, as well as economic, industrial, and social development, have all been shaped by Wisconsin's proximity to water. Bordering on the continent's two greatest inland waterways, the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River, Wisconsin possesses natural corridors for efficient transportation of people and trade goods.

Throughout Wisconsin's history nearly every type of commodity, such as furs, iron ore, ice, stone, manufactured goods, and people, has been transported via water. The success of the lumber and grain industries in the mid-19th century offers an excellent example. Due to the size and weight of the cargo, transporting timber over land was a difficult and expensive process. Grain too could be moved more cheaply via water. Consequently, shipping these commodities on the decks and in the holds of watercraft emerged as profitable alternative to land transportation. By the beginning of the 20th century it cost 4.42 cents to move a bushel of wheat from Chicago to New York by water, while the same load cost 9.98 cents to transport via railroad.

A WHS underwater archaeologist examines the Frank O'Connor's two story high steam engine. The shipwreck is just one of over 200 in the Door County area
A WHS underwater archaeologist
examines the Frank O'Connor's two
story high steam engine. The shipwreck
is just one of over 200 in the Door
County area

With over 30,000 ships plying the Great Lakes throughout time, it is not surprising that there are more than 700 historic shipwrecks in Wisconsin. And although they represent many of the underwater archaeological sites in Wisconsin, shipwrecks comprise only a portion of the state's submerged sites. Several hundred other prehistoric and historic sites are known to exist on the beds of Wisconsin's lakes and rivers. Since 1988, the Wisconsin Historical Society has been studying and protecting all of the underwater archaeological resources that lie beneath the waters of Wisconsin's 14,000 inland lakes, its thousands of miles of rivers, streams, and Great Lakes' shoreline.

Working in partnership with public institutions, private businesses, and dozens of volunteers, the Wisconsin Historical Society's underwater archaeology program has conducted investigations on nearly 80 archaeological sites throughout the state. These range from a Native American fish weir in Dane County to an inundated 18th century fur trading post in Vilas County, and from an 1840s schooner in Door County to a 372-foot steel bulk carrier in Lake Superior. These efforts have resulted in 17 Wisconsin shipwrecks being placed on the National Register of Historic Places, a designation that provides federal recognition and protection to the sites.


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