Discover the treasures and terrors of Lake Michigan’s shipwrecks

Jessica Gregory

A diver reaches the Milwaukee, exploring its underwater remains as though it’s an exhibit: looking but not touching. Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society

Master scuba diver Rich Laiacona floats down to the sunken SS Milwaukee like he’s her fairy godfather, gaping at the beautiful mess she’s got herself into. Not just anyone can reach out their hand to the ship’s wreckage and offer their condolences.

Laiacona has five minutes. With one oxygen tank at a depth of 120 feet in Lake Michigan, he has limited air at the bottom before he must make his gradual return to the surface. Flying around the ship, peering curiously into its nooks and crannies, Laiacona feels weightless in the frigid water and his senses are restricted. 

When he jumped from the charter boat that brought him eight miles northeast of Milwaukee’s Breakwater Lighthouse, he left the modern world behind. There’s history at the lake’s bottom that is entirely detached from the world above, providing a glimpse into the past, but only for those who know how to access it.

In the case of the Milwaukee, Lake Michigan disrupts time and space to create a time warp. As the diver connects with the mooring line and descends 100 feet in the water, he’s transported to the late 1920s as he reaches his destination. 

The Midwest’s Great Lakes served as a highway of commerce before the industry’s decline in the mid-20th century, carrying passengers and goods from port to port. Deep within its five bodies of water, there are over 10,000 ships locked in a broken time machine. Far past their operation, the ships have proved their tenacity even at the bottom of the Great Lakes. Beautifully preserved by the cold freshwater, divers explore the sunken ships beneath the surface and bear witness to nature’s tragedies. 

It was Oct. 22, 1929. The turbulent gale of an unforgiving storm rocked the Milwaukee and the 28 railcars stored in the stern’s car deck. Colleagues of the Milwaukee’s Capt. Robert “Bad Weather” McKay placed ominous bets on the likelihood of the vessel’s survival. The ship and its 47 crew members met a foe that boasted unmatchable strengths. As the storm raged on, it broke local wind speed records and carried forceful waves. No one returned. The crew’s families were left to cope with their grief just two days before the stock market crashed, leading to the Great Depression that later washed over the United States.

The Milwaukee transports railcars filled with cargo across the Great Lakes. Photo courtesy of the C. Patrick Labadie Collection

Not all divers visit shipwrecks for their ties to history. Bob Dankert, a Madison-area diver and instructor, enjoys it as a purely recreational activity.

“I love diving and it gives you something to look at. Even though I might not be as into the history, it’s still fun to just dive around on the things and see all the different components of it. It gives you a bit more of a challenge and you just see some really cool things,” Dankert says.

In the summer season, maritime archaeologist Caitlin Zant and her team of historians and divers explore shipwrecks to collect measurements, record their observations and create scaled model drawings of the ships. Archaeologists like Zant who study shipwrecks for a living digitize their records in the winter, write grants for the upcoming summer’s projects and submit historical preservation reports for shipwreck sites.

A rule within the field is to leave artifacts underwater as you found them. When a wreck’s wood is removed from the water by human contact, it quickly deteriorates. The cold, dark, deep freshwater is the key factor in their slow aging, and Zant says some 150-year-old shipwrecks in the Great Lakes look like they could sail tomorrow. In these oxygen-depleted waters, there are few aquatic animals that could cause damage to the ship, besides the invasive quagga mussels that have dominated the waters in the past 20 years. In Lake Superior, the water is so cold that some ships still have paint on the exteriors. As long as the sunken history stays in place, the site becomes its own underwater museum. But what is a museum without its exhibits?

Before it left port, the Milwaukee loaded its 28 train railcars with vegetables, butter, cheese, wood veneer, farm animal feed, Kohler Co. bathroom fixtures and three Nash Motor Company automobiles. An estimated $720,000 in financial losses from the cargo and railcars sank with the ship.

In zero-current waters with fair visibility, Laiacona can see 20 to 30 feet ahead. With ease, he traverses obstacles of preserved automobile frames and pieces of bathtubs, sinks and toilets. 

“Being able to fly around things [in the water] and see it from every angle, turn yourself upside down, it’s just so much fun,” Laiacona says. “You can’t do that in a museum, right?”

Several of the Milwaukee’s artifacts that were detached from the ship by crew members did make their way to museums. Two life preservers branded with “SS Milwaukee” are located at the Wisconsin Maritime Museum in Manitowoc, 81 miles north of Milwaukee.

Chicago’s regional National Archives and Records Administration is working to preserve one intimate artifact  — a letter, handwritten by a crewmate —  that describes the ship’s final hours. 

On Oct. 26, 1929, a letter in a watertight metal case was found in an SS Milwaukee lifeboat off the coast of Holland, Michigan — on the other side of the lake from Milwaukee. Zant says these notes were not unusual for the time. 

“All these ships had a black box, essentially, like airplanes do,” she says. “It was a watertight case that if something was going wrong, you could write on it, ‘This is what’s happening,’ and then toss it overboard.”

Divers who reach the intact pilothouse can read “Milwaukee” above the door. Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society

The author of the Milwaukee’s letter, purser A.R. Sadon, succinctly described the fateful scene. 

“The ship is making water fast,” Sadon wrote. “We have turned around and headed for Milwaukee. Pumps are working but the sea gate is bent in and can’t keep the water out. Flicker is flooded. Seas are tremendous. Things look bad. Our [crew] roll is about the same as on last pay day.”

The note was later authenticated, becoming the only real, recovered record from a lost ship in all of Great Lakes shipwreck history. It did, however, raise questions about what caused the ship to sink. After reports of fishermen snagging their lines in the area where the Milwaukee sat undiscovered, two divers found the ship in 1972.

Pieces of Kohler Co. bathtubs lay covered in quagga mussels. Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society

Divers see that the Milwaukee is aging. Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society

Some experts theorized that a railcar broke loose and smashed through the sea gate, which was preventing water from penetrating the deck. Zant says this didn’t align well with Sadon’s note, which indicated the sea gate was bent inward. The Wisconsin Historical Society’s investigation in 2014 determined that there is no evident damage to the inside of the car deck, which wouldn’t be the case if a railcar was freely moving aboard the ship during the storm. It is thought that the sea gate was compromised, allowing for water to flood in, and its hatches might have been loose on the car deck and lower decks.

Without any survivors, it is nearly impossible to know why the Milwaukee found its forever home in Lake Michigan. Without maritime archaeologists and scuba divers, the stories of failed voyages would remain unwritten in the cold, dark Great Lakes. The Milwaukee remains a favorite shipwreck for Wisconsin scuba divers.

DARK page photo link credit: Courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society