Wisconsin Historical Society

Classroom Material

The Sinking of the Lucerne

Interactive Resource, Historical Essay, Slide Show

Underwater Archaeology: The Sinking of the Lucerne | Wisconsin Historical Society

The schooner Lucerne was a cargo ship that sailed Lake Superior in the 1800s. Find out more about the Lucerne and its final fate through this interactive resource, historical essay, and slideshow.

'Ship of Death: The Case of the Lost Lucerne' Interactive Resource

Investigate the sinking of the Lucerne in your classroom! Explore the world of underwater archeaology with your students as they answer the critical questions:

  • What matters?
  • Why does it matter?
  • How do we know?

Read the Story of the Lucerne

In November 1886, the schooner Lucerne loaded a cargo of iron ore at Ashland for the last trip of the season. The crew did not know that a terrible winter storm would soon sweep across Lake Superior, and that this would be the Lucerne's final voyage. The vessel was far from shelter when the storm hit. Struggling in the rough seas, strong winds, and heavy snow, the Lucerne turned back for the safety of Chequamegon Bay.

EnlargeIllustration of the Lucerne.

Play the Lucerne Slideshow

See images of the Lucerne

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Site plan for the Lucerne. Chequamegon Bay and the Apostle Islands.

As the Lucerne sailed through the blinding snowstorm, the crew probably did not know exactly where they were. Afraid of running aground, the captain dropped anchor in order to ride out the storm. At some point, the windlass (wind luss, a tool that raises or lowers the vessel's anchor) stopped working. Icy water gushing over the decks may have frozen the windlass. Unable to control the anchor, the crew could not keep the Lucerne from being pushed backwards. An iron bar wedged into the windlass appears to have been a sailor's unsuccessful effort to repair it and stop the Lucerne from being pushed aground by the storm.

The storm continued for two days. A lighthouse keeper discovered the ship off Long Island, only a few miles from the entrance to Chequamegon Bay. He saw only the Lucerne's masts above water. Three men were discovered tied to the rigging, covered with almost six inches of ice. There were no survivors.

For nearly one hundred years, the sinking of the Lucerne remained a mystery. Because there were no survivors, no one was left to tell the story. However, using various methods and equipment, underwater archaeologists were able to piece together the story of the Lucerne's last days afloat.