Category Archives: Shipwrecks

Eyes In The Deep: Exploring the Shipwreck APPOMATTOX

July 15th-17th marked the 5th annual Eyes in the Deep program, where the public are given the opportunity to explore and document local Lake Michigan shipwrecks along Milwaukee’s lakefront. This season, Discovery World once again assembled a team of experts to showcase underwater technology in the exploration and documentation of the shipwreck Appomattox located at the end of Capitol Dr. off Atwater Beach.  Our research platform for this maritime expedition was the Milwaukee Boat Lines bi-level vessel the Voyageur captained by Jake Gianelli.

This year David Thompson of Nautilus Marine Group and Portunes International brought his Proteus ROV (remotely operated vehicle), which were the primary “eyes” on the shipwreck.  Built by Hydroacoustics, the Proteus 500 ROV is 28 inches long x 16 inches wide x 13 inches tall.  It weighs 70 lbs (31.8 kgs) and can dive 500 ft (152 m) using on board rechargeable batters that power two forward thrusters, one vertical thruster and one horizontal thruster.  With around 500 lines of resolution, the video camera can tilt 170 degrees and switch between color or black and white, making it ideal for exploring in low visibility water.

Sector Scan Sonar mosaic of Appomattox, at 30 meters radius per scan

A few weeks before this event, we had the opportunity to work with Dave and his colleague Brian Abbott of Nautilus Marine Group to map the Appomattox shipwreck using acoustic imaging called Sector Scanning Sonar.  Brian has worked internationally on archaeological sites, including mapping the Titanic, so having him here was a great treat.  This preliminary sonar survey was performed off the Adventure Charter Boat catamaran Mai Tai , owned and operated by Captain Rick Hake.  In one weekend we successfully mapped four shipwrecks off Milwaukee.

Original photograph in Historical Collection of the Great Lakes at Bowling Green University

Built in 1896 at the James Davidson shipyard in West Bay City, Michigan, the 319-foot long Appomattox was the largest wooden bulk steamer ever produced on the Great Lakes, and possibly the world.  With an oak hull supported by steel bracing and powered by a triple expansion steam engine, the Appomattox was a truly modern vessel by contemporary standards.  She had an uneventful life on the Great Lakes until the night of November 2nd 1905, when loaded with a cargo of coal, she was blinded by heavy smog and industrial smoke emanating from Milwaukee.  As a result, the Appomattox ran hard aground on a sandbar, just north of the Milwaukee Harbor entrance off the end of Capitol Drive.  Unable to be freed, she was pounded in the heavy surf, stripped of valuables and eventually abandoned.  Today the Appomattox rests in 15-20 feet of water with large sections of her hull still intact.

This site plan was completed by the Wisconsin Historical Society's Underwater Archaeology and Maritime Preservation Program

On Friday July 15th at 10am sharp, the Voyageur left Discovery Worlds’ dock with over 30 middle and high school students onboard, as part of Discovery Worlds’ summer camp program in Underwater Robotics and Underwater Archaeology.  Several adult passengers were also aboard, as we made the forty-five minute voyage to the Appomattox shipwreck.  En route, all were given a presentation about the shipwreck that was previously researched by the Wisconsin Historical Society’s Underwater Archaeology and Maritime Preservation program, as well as the Great Lakes Shipwreck Research Foundation.

Dave Thompson (left) teaches students about the ROV, while students (right) put the finishing touches on their ROVs prior to launch

Prior to arriving at the shipwreck, an auxiliary dive boat captained by Bob Jaeck left ahead of us in order to place a temporary mooring line for the Voyageur to tie off to.  This was done with the help of two divers, Brian Bockholt and Charles Hudson, who then assisted in guiding the ROV into the water.  To everyone’s amazement, within seconds the large shipwreck came into view on the monitors inside Voyageur.   The distinguishing feature of the wreck were the large keelsons, which formed the rigid internal skeleton of the ship.  These enormous oak timbers measure 1.5 feet across and over 30 feet in length.

Photograph by Tamara Thomsen (Wisconsin Historical Society)

Once we were safely on the wreck, the controls were turned over to anyone who wanted to pilot the ROV and explore the site.  We were even able to talk to the divers with the aid of an acoustic earpiece that picked up our voices from a hydrophone that was lowered into the water.  We spent over half an hour exploring the wreck, while the underwater robotics students got a chance to test out their hand-build ROVs.  Despite some buoyancy issues, the students’ ROVs performed very well. One was even fitted with a video camera that allowed us to see the shipwreck from its perspective.

Photograph by Tamara Thomsen (Wisconsin Historical Society)

The final expedition to the Appomattox occurred Sunday morning, July 17th, once again aboard Voyageur.  This time the auxiliary dive boat Mai Tai, captained by Adventure Charter boat captain Rick Hake arrived at the wreck site ahead of Voyageur in order to place the temporary mooring line for the larger Voyageur to tie off to.  Once on station, I put on my dive gear and swam over to Mai Tai, where Kimm Stabelfeldt (president of Great Lakes Shipwreck Research Foundation) and Captain Rick were also ready to SCUBA dive with the ROV and help take measurements.  Wearing a full face mask with a wireless microphone, I was then able to talk to the passengers aboard Voyageur and describe what the ROV and my handheld camera were seeing.  Meanwhile, Kimm Stabelfeldt began drawing a section of the shipwrecks port side as I assisted with measuring.  Of particular note on this dive were the six inch-wide iron reinforcing cross straps, placed inside the hull of the Appomattox when it was built, to give it extra strength.  Once again, anyone who wanted to drive the ROV was allowed to do so, which made for a very memorable experience.

Overall, this year’s Eyes in the Deep went off without a hitch, which for any underwater expedition is a feat.  The big unknown factor is always the weather.  Even though it was quite hot, the important thing was that the lake was calm, making it very comfortable to hover over the shipwreck for over an hour.  Based on the favorable feedback from the participants, it is clear that this expedition was a smashing success and one that serves as a template for future shipwreck explorations.  Stay tuned for that and more hands-on archaeology opportunities offered through Discovery World’s Distant Mirror Archaeology Program.


Diving Deep to Discover the L.R. DOTY

The Discovery of the L.R. DOTY

Last week a group of divers descended over 300 feet into the 40F cold waters of southwestern Lake Michigan becoming the first people to visit the quagga mussel-encrusted grave of the shipwreck L.R. Doty.  Led by renowned Great Lakes maritime historian, Brendon Baillod, a team of technical divers made history when their video footage of the behemoth wreck came to light after 112 years. Until last week, it was the largest wooden ship that had been unaccounted for in Lake Michigan.

In a recent interview with Meg Jones of Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Brendon Baillod stated that the Doty “vanished with no real explanation. She was a pretty new ship. We wanted to solve that mystery – why she disappeared in a Lake Michigan storm that she should have been able to handle.” Technical divers breathing a special blend of mixed gas (helium and oxygen) with and with equipment necessary to dive so deep recorded high definition video and photographs of the wreck site, which may provide clues as to how and why the Doty sank in a storm so fierce it damaged part of the Milwaukee break wall and destroyed the boardwalk in Chicago. One of these divers, Jitka Hanakova who captained the dive expedition, descended to the shipwreck which appeared at around 200 feet below the surface. “It just suddenly shows up like a ghost ship and the more murky it is, the spookier it is…it’s very exciting to be on a new wreck that nobody has ever seen – it’s like a diver’s holy grail.”

History of the LR Doty

Launched in May of 1893 at West Bay City, Michigan by F.W. Wheeler & Co. for the Cuyahoga Transit Company of Cleveland, Ohio, the L.R. Doty was named after Mr. Lucius Ramsey Doty, the general manager of the Cuyahoga Transit Company. She was and enrolled at the Cleveland, Ohio customs house on June 5, 1893 where she was awarded official number 141272

The Doty was built of white oak with a hull length of 291 ft., a beam of 41 ft. and a depth of 19.8 ft., with a capacity of 2056.34 gross tons. The Doty was built with steel arches embedded in her hull, providing additional stability for a wooden vessel of her size. She had nine deck hatches and was built with a tall fore-mast, on which she could set sail, but also had a large triple expansion coal fired engine for primary steam power. Fortunately, she was one of seven nearly identical sister ships built at this time, which included the: William F. Sauber, C.F. Bielman, Tampa, Iosco and Uganda.

Loaded with 107,000 bushels of corn, the L.R. Doty was pulling the four-masted schooner, the Olive Jeanette when the tow line broke in a gale as the ships passed Milwaukee heading north. As waves reached 30 feet, the Doty‘s captain, Christopher Smith, swung his large ship around to search for large schooner.  Ironically the schooner survived the storm, but the L.R. Doty was never seen again.

Condition of Shipwreck

As the divers illuminated the stern of the enormous wooden vessel, it failed to yield the ships definitive identity due to the entire surface being covered in a thick carpet of invasive mussels introduced to the Great Lakes within the past 20 years, suspected to have proliferated via ballast water offloaded from ocean going ships.

Despite not being able to make out the official name,  the vessels dimensions, unique characteristics, onboard cargo and geographical location (ca. 20miles off of south Milwaukee), pinpoint her as being the grave of none other than the L.R. Doty.  Both deckhouses were gone, likely due to her violent and tragic end in 1898. As the Doty began to sink, the incoming water displacing the air in the cabins would have caused them to blow off as witnessed on many other shipwrecks before and after this nautical tragedy. Moreover, her two masts and smokestack were tipped over, while a wheelbarrow used to move cargo still lays on the deck of the ship, holding nothing now but water and encrusted mussels.

Like all shipwrecks in Wisconsin waters, this wreck belongs to the state and is protected under federal legislation.  This means that no artifacts can be removed from the wreck site without permission of the DNR and State Historical Society.

In Memorandum

The 19 victims of this deadly storm were as follows: Christopher Smith (Captain, from Port Huron, MI), Henry Sharp (First Mate of Detroit), W.J. Bossie (Second Mate of Detroit), Thomas Abernathie (Engineer of Port Huron), C.W. Odette (Second Engineer), George Wadkin, (Oiler), L. Goss (Steward of Bay City, MI), W.J. Scott (Cook), Charles Bornie (Watchman), Peter G. Peterson (Wheelsman), Albert Nelson (Assistant Wheelsman), Joseph Fitzsimmons (Fireman), J. Howe (Deckhand), F. Parmuth (Deckhand), C. Curtis (Deckhand), William Ebert (Deckhand), Pat Ryan ( Deckhand), including the ships two cats Dewy and Watson.

Public Program

All are welcome to participate in an upcoming public presentation on this shipwreck discovery at DISCOVERY WORLD on Sunday July 11th at 4pm.  This public forum will bring the expedition team members together to talk about their personal accounts of the discovery, while viewing a sample of the high definition video footage recorded during the first dive to the shipwreck.  In addition to this exciting public presentation on ships history and loss, guests of honor attending will include several living descendants of the LR Doty, including family members of Captain Christopher Smith.

This event is free and open to the public.

Also, stay tuned for more programs on this and other shipwrecks at Discovery World.

80 Year Old Shipwreck Yields New Information

Car ferry underway ca. 1920s
Car ferry underway ca. 1920s

The year was 1929 and a tremendous late October storm was howling out of northern Lake Michigan. Dozens of ships labored to find safety in ports across the lake, however,  some chose to fight the storm and cross the 76 mile breadth of tumultuous seas between Wisconsin and Michigan. One such captain, aptly known as “Heavy Weather” McKay, made the decision to make a run for Grand Haven, MI from Milwaukee WI and risk his crew of around 50 men and his cargo of some 25 railroad cars loaded with Kohler bathtubs, Nash automobiles, barley, cheese, feed, canned peas, among other goods.

At 3:45pm on October 22nd, the 338 foot long car ferry SS Milwaukee of the Grand Trunk Railroad Company was spotted by the crew of the U.S. Lightship 95, a ship anchored 3 miles offshore serving as a lighthouse. They reported the SS Milwaukee to be pitching and rolling heavily as it disappeared into the storm heading east as 20 foot waves crashing over her steel hull.  This would be the last sighting of the car ferry before her remains were discovered on April 14th  1972 by legendary shipwreck hunters, Kent Bellrichard, John Steele and Roger Chapman in over 100 feet of water three miles off Fox Point, WI.

Divers Exploring the SS Milwaukee
Divers Exploring the SS Milwaukee

As part of this years ROV Days, our third expedition to the wreck in as many years was mounted on July 20th-21st 2009, where we brought students and the public to this local maritime landmark aboard Discovery World’s tall ship the S/V Denis Sullivan, under the command of captain Tiffany Krihwan.  One of the main objectives of this seasons expedition was to employ sophisticated imaging technology to continue documenting the wreck site, using Remotely Operated Vehicles, Sector Scanning Sonar and with SCUBA divers in the water to photograph and map the wreck using conventional underwater archaeology methods.  In addition to on board education about the history of the SS Milwaukee, the passengers were able to see and participate in legitimate underwater archaeology research from the deck of a replica 19th century three-masted schooner.

ROV's explore the wreck site
ROV’s explore the wreck site

The Remotely Operated Vehicle used in this research was a VideoRay ROV, piloted by Patrick Rowe of Midwest ROV. Patrick was able to fly throughout the wreck and even enter confined spaces that were previously not recorded. Gauging by the excited reactions of those watching the wreck below us, it was a tremendous thrill and unique opportunity for the non-diving public to access this submerged cultural resource, which would otherwise be inaccessible.   The hours of ROV footage that has been recorded on this wreck provides an excellent archive of visual material to make sense of the wreck site and to document its slow decay as time goes by.

Sector Scan Sonar mosaic of  the wreck  and debris field

The Sector Scanning Sonar equipment was brought from Michigan by the Nautilus Marine Group led by Brian Abbott and David Thompson. This scanning system uses high resolution sonar technology to imaging the wreck site while sitting in a tripod on the lake bottom. By changing the placement of the tripod and the range to be scanned (30-200 foot radius) a shipwreck like the SS Milwaukee can be mapped in a matter of hours. We were able to get several very good scans of the wreck site, which picked up debris around the wreck that was previously unknown. The advantage of this system is that anomalies can be measured to the centimeter both in terms of overall size, but also how far off the bottom they are.  These data have resulted in the most detailed map of the shipwreck site to date.

Kevin Cullen (left) and Kimm Stabelfeldt (right) drawing the wreckage
Kevin Cullen (left) and Kimm Stabelfeldt (right) drawing the wreckage

Finally, by actually diving down to the stern (back end) of the wreck allowed for a more vivid interaction with the wreck by measuring specific features, such as the car deck (30′ diameter) each propeller measured 12’8″ in diameter, a car tire at the stern had an overall diameter of 2’5″. This sea gate measured 5′ in height, but was likely not high or thick enough to withstand the incredible force of the swamping waves, which resulted in bending the gate in and thus flooding the crews quarters at the stern of the ship. After scraping away a two inch layer of zebra mussels, a large crack measuring 1’8″  was noted running down the port hull where the sea gate was attached. Based on this evidence and the crumpled state the sea gate is in as it hangs off the stern, it now seems probable that some of the railroad cars came loose smashed through the sea gate. In fact the remains of a railroad car can be seen beneath the enormous propellers, which tells us it sank to the bottom before the ship sank and landed right on top of it.

All together, this years human and technological “eyes in the deep” resulted in new information about the demise of the SS Milwaukee and current state of preservation. Moreover, by engaging the public in expeditions of this nature, it no doubt fosters a greater appreciation for our collective maritime history, while bringing awareness to the thousands of shipwrecks throughout the Great Lakes. It is because of these underwater museums that we owe a debt of gratitude to, for their efforts in fueling the growth of the American economy.

Read more coverage by Stan Miller of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published July 31st in the Cue Section