See the Two Ship Graveyards That May Become New Marine Sanctuaries

The first marine sanctuaries approved by NOAA in 15 years are home to a plethora of shipwrecks

05 Fig. 5 Benzonia stern resting on Caribou stern.jpg
Donald Shomette

The first two marine sanctuaries in 15 years will likely be in Lake Michigan and in the Chesapeake Bay.

President Barack Obama announced this week that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) had approved nominations for Mallows Bay in the Chesapeake and an 875-square-mile part of Lake Michigan off the coast of Wisconsin to become national marine sanctuaries.

Both have unique ecological and archaeological significanceand both sites are home to a large number of shipwrecks. Mallows Bay has the largest assemblage of World War I-era ships in the world, known as the "ghost fleet", in addition to ships dating from the Civil War and earlier.

The proposed Lake Michigan site, starting north of Milwaukee and extending up the "thumb" of the peninsula, is home to 39 known shipwrecks, state historian John Broihahn says, ranging from ships built in the 1830s to 1918.

In Mallows Bay, the majority of the ships were intentionally scuttled after the brand-new U.S. Shipping Board was commissioned to build a fleet during World War I and chose to build as many wooden ships as cheaply as possible.

"They were throwaways," says historian and underwater archaeologist Donald Shomette, who literally wrote the book on Mallows Bay. "They weren't going for quality." That decision meant that many of the boats were never actually used in World War I and that nobody wanted them afterwards, except for scrap, which is how they ended up in the bay.

The designation as marine sanctuaries doesn't necessarily mean an end to research or recreation—and Broihahn and Shomette both believe that having federal recognition will improve the sites.

In some ways, however, they're racing against time. In Maryland, rising seas threaten to submerge the Mallows Bay ghost fleet entirely. And in Lake Michigan, invading zebra and quagga mussels have filtered the water so that the shipwrecks are much more visible than before, but Broihahn says there is anecdotal evidence that the invasive molluscs are also damaging some of the historic wrecks.

The good news, he says, is that the growth of water tourism combined with the new NOAA designation has helped bring awareness to the site. "These wrecks really aren't invisible anymore," he says.

For the Birds

The wreck of the Benzonia is now becoming a breeding ground for birds. Historian Donald Shomette visited this wreck a few years ago. “I had to watch where I was stepping so I didn't step on eggs,” he says.

Overgrown

Another boat in Mallows Bay is almost fully overgrown by vegetation at this point. “They have become islands,” Shomette says. “They have beaver, river otter living on them.” Because of the trees growing out of the hulls, he says, “I call them flower pots.”

Court Fights and Gun Fights

Outlines of the wrecks are clearly visible in an aerial view of Mallows Bay.  Prior to the organized, industrialized salvaging of the fleet during WWII, adventurous “salvers” made Mallows Bay into a no-man’s land, taking whatever they could.

“At any given time, you’d have 70 to 100 men claiming this ship or that ship,” says Shomette. “There are court fights and gun fights. During the Depression, about 15 percent of Charles County's income was coming from guys working the wrecks.”

A Virtual Tour

A pontoon with a series of cameras, built by mapping company Terrain360, heads out with the Chesapeake Conservancy’s blessing to create a virtual tour of Mallows Bay, which will appear soon on the conservancy's website.

The Chesapeake Conservancy worked with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources to nominate the site because “Mallows Bay is a great sort of combination of history and wildlife and recreation all in the same concentrated area,” says conservancy president and CEO Joel Dunn.

Editor's Note: This slide has been updated with the correct image of Mallows Bay.

Twice Sank

The Gallinipper is the oldest known wreck in the proposed marine sanctuary area in Lake Michigan. It was built in 1833 as the Nancy Dousman and sank a decade later. Undeterred, its owners raised it from the lake, rebuilt it and rechristened it the Gallinipper. The Gallinipper sank for the second and final time in 1851.

Wreck of the Byron

The Byron “probably spent most of its life in Lake Michigan,” says state historian John Broihahn. It was likely built around 1849, and it sank on May 8, 1867. The Great Lakes have always been difficult to sail, even today, he says, and those hazards probably contributed to the great number of wrecks off the coast of Wisconsin.

Recognition

A diver inspects the wreck of the Walter B. Allen, a “canaler” boat built in 1866 to maximize the cargo it could carry and still fit in the Welland Canal between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. Anyone with a boat and diving equipment can visit these wrecks, so the Wisconsin Historical Society has outfitted some of the most popular with mooring buoys.

“If a wreck doesn’t have a buoy on it, people … used to drag an anchor along the bottom until they hooked something, and usually that’s the wreck,” says Broihahn. Now, though, “we’ve really seen people change. They aren’t actively taking things from these wrecks, they recognize them for how special they are.”

Protection

A diver inspects the S.C. Baldwin, reportedly the first double-decked wooden steam barge built on the Great Lakes, which was constructed in 1871.

Many of the wrecks in this area of Lake Michigan can only be accessed by diving, but “we have wrecks along the shoreline as well,” Broihahn says. “We’ve had luck with identifying some of the wrecks from the air.”

The shipwrecks are in fairly stable condition at the bottom of the lake, and the National Marine Sanctuary designation should help Wisconsin increase tourism as well as research on the wrecks. “[The designation] does add an additional layer of protection,” Broihahn says.