Old Lake Michigan shipwreck visible again after burial under sand


The Peoria’s portside deck shelf and two deck beams. Intact parts of the ship are covered with sand. Image: Wisconsin Historical Society

By Clara Lincolnhol

Look fast or you may miss an elusive 170-year-old sunken schooner off the coast of Baileys Harbor, Wisconsin.

The mostly intact shipwreck, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in early April, isn’t always visible, even though it’s in very shallow waters, said Tamara Thomsen, a Wisconsin Historical Society maritime archaeologist.

The vessel comes in and out of view depending on the cyclical motion of sand in Lake Michigan.

It had been invisible, shrouded in sand for decades, until a tour boat operator spotted it in the late summer of 2021. The Wisconsin Historical Society surveyed the ship the next summer to get it listed as a National Historic Place, she said.

The ship, named Peoria, was built in Ohio in 1854. In its earlier years it hauled lumber on Lake Erie. After the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 the ship mainly traversed Lake Michigan. Peoria and many other schooners were in high demand to transport wood to rebuild the city, Thomsen said.

The Peoria docked in Chicago in 1855. Image: Wisconsin Historical Society

That’s why Peoria had multiple accidents before its fateful final voyage, colliding with three separate ships on three different occasions. During that time the waters were crowded with large lumbering ships, she said.

“When there’s a big traffic jam on the road today there’s bound to be accidents,” Thomsen said. “It was very much commonplace for (ships) to get struck in the harbor, getting struck coming in or while waiting at the dock or lumber market.”

In 1880 the vessel blew ashore at the Baileys Harbor Lighthouse. Recovering it was initially considered a lost cause, according to Wisconsin Shipwrecks, an informational shipwreck database. However a year later, repairs were made and Peoria set sail once again.

But 20 years later, on November 10, 1901, the ship with a load of lumber was blown over by strong stormy gales in Baileys Harbor. All six crew members scrambled to shore. The ship met its end near where it was beached two decades earlier, according to the database.

The ship’s existence and location has always been local knowledge, although it isn’t always visible. A 1980s Wisconsin diving guide listed the wreck as a place to visit, but when state marine archaeologists searched for it years later to conduct a survey, the ship had been covered by sand, Thomsen said.

The 2021 report meant it was visible again for the first time in over three decades. Maritime archeologists confirmed the ship’s identity using historic documents from around the time it sank.

The wreck is easily accessible and visible for divers, kayakers, anglers and local tour boats. It’s exciting, Thomsen said. “The vantage point of a deck can get a look at not just pieces of the boat but of the whole thing.”

Peoria’s approximate location on Lake Michigan, indicated by the red point. Image: NASA, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

No one knows how long Peoria will remain visible, she said. A large storm could dredge up sand in the bay and cover it up again.

The dynamic process of sand movement in Lake Michigan covers and uncovers shipwrecks, said Adam Bechle, coastal engineering outreach specialist at the University of Wisconsin Madison Sea Grant Institute.

The littoral zone, or the area that extends from the beach to where waves begin to break is where sediment is transported by waves and currents, Bechle said. Water levels and stormy weather impact sediment movement and deposition.

“Waves break at a certain depth,” Bechle said. “As you change water levels, that changes the depth of the water and changes where the waves are going to break, so that changes where sediment is going to be moved around.”

Bechle isn’t exactly sure what specific event moved the sand covering Peoria. But he believes fluctuating water levels in Lake Michigan “probably caused quite a bit of sand movement and sandbar migration which may have made conditions right for the ship to get uncovered.”

The National Register of Historic Places is “the official list of the nation’s historic places worthy of preservation,” according to the National Park Service, which administers the register. It includes “objects significant in American history, architecture, archeology, engineering and culture.”

Objects on the register, like the Peoria shipwreck, receive additional state and federal legal protections.

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