Divers inspect the Walter B. Allen, which lies in about 170 feet of Lake Michigan, seven miles northeast of Sheboygan. Submitted photo
WISCONSIN - A ship lying on the Lake Michigan floor seven miles northeast of Sheboygan — and considered one of the best preserved of any Great Lakes shipwreck – has been named to the National Register of Historic Places.
The canaller Walter B. Allen, which sank in a storm in April 1880, lies upright and intact in about 170 feet of water and is remarkably well preserved, experts say.
"This ship is remarkably intact. It's one of the best preserved in Lake Michigan," said Jim Draeger, deputy state historic preservation officer at the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison.
Putting the ship on the National Register of Historic Places "will help the public understand that ships like this exist in Great Lakes waters and educates them about the importance of Great Lakes shipping to the history of Wisconsin," Draeger said. "It also provides some protections to the property under state law."
According to the society's Maritime Underwater Archaeology web site:
The Walter B. Allen was called a canaller because it was built to fit through the Welland Canal locks that connect Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, bypassing Niagara Falls.
It was built in Ogdensburg, N.Y., in 1866 and was the largest of the canaller class of schooners built on the Great Lakes. It typically shipped grain from Chicago to Buffalo or Oswego, N.Y., and then returned with coal.
It was while on the Chicago-to-Buffalo run, loaded with 19,000 bushels of grain, that the Walter B. Allen ran aground on April 11, 1880, on South Manitou Island at the north end of Lake Michigan in a storm.
In doing so, the ship lost its large anchor and mainsail. A tug from Manistee, Mich., came to help release her and a steam pump, valued at $4,000 was placed on her deck to help her get to Milwaukee for repairs.
While in tow, a snowstorm picked up and pushed waves over the ship, filling her to the rail and extinguishing the fires of the pump, according to a history posted on the state historical society's website.
The ship sunk within 20 minutes. All on board were rescued.
Because the ship sunk at a slow rate and landed on its bottom in very deep water, the ship and its contents were left almost completely intact, "making it a virtual time capsule of 1880 shipboard life," according to the web site.
"Its depth also placed it down below the wave action and ice that breaks up shallower wrecks, there's less oxygen," which speeds decay, Draeger said. "And until recently it also has been less accessible to salvagers and looters."
Mike Hansen, 45, the owner of Maritime Divers in Manitowoc said, "It's like a ship in a bottle, captured in time. It's a very pristine shipwreck. Until a couple years ago it was almost completely in tact, until one of the masts fell over."
Retired Sheboygan Police officer Jim N. Brotz, 75, has explored the wreck dozens of times and salvaged the ship's wheel on one of those dives when it was still legal to do so. Today, it's on display at the American Club in Kohler.
"It's the only Great Lakes ship with a knob on it" to make it easier to turn, Brotz said. "That's kind of interesting."
Because of the ship's depth, Hansen said not just any diver can reach it.
"Anything beyond 130 feet of water is considered a technical dive. It's not a dive that any diver can or should do. You have to have some specialized training," Hansen said.
The ship was officially listed on the register in early November.
The register is the official national list of historic properties in America deemed worthy of preservation and is maintained by the National Park Service in the U.S. Department of the Interior.
The Wisconsin Historical Society administers the program in Wisconsin.
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