Father and Daughter Discover 152-Year-Old Shipwreck While Fishing in Green Bay

Tim and Henley Wollak found what is likely the wreck of the “George L. Newman,” which sank during the Great Peshtigo Fire of 1871

Underwater view of shipwreck remains
Maritime archaeologists suspect the wreck is the George L. Newman. Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

Tim Wollak and his 6-year-old daughter, Henley Wollak, were fishing on Lake Michigan this summer when their boat’s sonar picked up something unusual on the lake floor.

Henley thought the shapes looked like something an octopus’ tentacles might leave behind, reports Fox 11 News’ Ben Krumholz. Meanwhile, her dad suspected they’d stumbled upon a shipwreck, so he posted the sonar images to a few Facebook groups. Maritime archaeologists with the Wisconsin Historical Society got wind of the mystery and did some digging.

Now, experts think the father-daughter duo discovered the remains of the George L. Newman, a ship that sank during a deadly fire more than 150 years ago.

The Wollaks found the wreck in Green Bay near Green Island, a small landmass just east of Marinette, Wisconsin. The historical society didn’t have any records of shipwrecks found in that area. Looking through their archives, they realized it was near where the George L. Newman sank on October 8, 1871, during the Great Peshtigo Fire.

The historical society contacted the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, which sent conservation warden Mike Neal to investigate using a remote-operated vehicle (ROV). Earlier this month, the ROV captured photos and videos of the wreck, adding more evidence to support their theory.

Shipbuilder Benjamin Flint constructed the 122-foot-long George L. Newman in Black River, Ohio, in 1855, according to a Facebook post from the Wisconsin Historical Society. The ship was a barkentine, a type of sailing vessel that could be operated with a smaller number of crew members.

On the day it sank, the George L. Newman was transporting lumber from Little Suamico, Wisconsin. Smoke from the Great Peshtigo Fire was so thick that the crew members aboard the George L. Newman could not see where they were going. The ship ran aground near the southeast point of Green Island.

Samuel Drew, the Green Island lighthouse keeper, rescued the crew. They stayed at the lighthouse for a week, trying to salvage what they could from the sinking ship.

Eventually, they abandoned the vessel. Over time, it became covered in sand and was “largely forgotten” until the Wollaks stumbled upon it this summer, per the historical society.

Sonar imagery of a shipwreck
The 122-foot-long vessel was transporting lumber when it ran aground near Green Island. Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

The Great Peshtigo Fire started as a brush fire, likely caused by railroad workers clearing land for tracks. The small blaze quickly ballooned in size, covering between 1.2 million and 1.5 million acres. It destroyed the city of Peshtigo, Wisconsin, in roughly an hour and burned 16 other towns. The inferno even crossed over the waters of Green Bay and reached Wisconsin’s Door and Kewaunee counties.

More than 1,200 people died in the fire, which makes it the deadliest fire in the nation’s history. The Peshtigo Fire Museum, run by the Peshtigo Historical Society, keeps the memory of the disaster alive.

The Great Peshtigo Fire is often overlooked because it started on the same day as the Great Chicago Fire, which killed 300 people and destroyed 17,450 buildings.

Next spring, maritime archaeologists hope to conduct a more extensive analysis of the wreck, which they may nominate for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.

“As soon as I can get a group together, we’re going to go out and try and locate the site and do a few dives on it over several days and try to record this site,” says Tamara Thomsen, a maritime archaeologist with the Wisconsin Historical Society, to WBAY’s Holly Brantley.

In the meantime, the Wollaks are still relishing their discovery.

“I don’t know how we top it,” says Tim Wollak to Fox 11 News. “I told [Henley] I’m pretty sure there’s no one else in her school that has ever found a shipwreck that nobody had recorded before. I guess we’ll just have to fish more and see if we can find more shipwrecks.”

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