For more than 140 years the 95-foot schooner lay hidden 210 feet below the surface of Lake Michigan. Then, in 1994, the long-lost Gallinipper was discovered, nearly perfectly preserved in the frigid water off the coast between Manitowoc and Sheboygan.
Vocational diver Steve Radovan will tell the story of the Gallinipper at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 12, at the Racine Lighthouse and Maritime Preservation Society’s first educational presentation of the 2019-2020 season. Radovan will show a video highlighting the history of the Gallinipper and the discovery of its wreckage, and answer questions afterward.
The Gallinipper is a significant shipwreck in Wisconsin’s maritime history, Radovan said.
“It’s the oldest known shipwreck in Wisconsin” he said. “It sank in 1851, which is pretty early in shipping history.”
The Gallinipper had a long and colorful history. It was built in 1833 for Michael Dousman, a prominent businessman in the fur trading industry. The two-masted, wooden hull ship was dubbed the Nancy Dousman in honor of Dousman’s daughter, and it ferried furs and supplies up and down Lake Michigan.
The schooner changed hands a few times and in 1846 it was reconfigured to increase her storage capacity and renamed Gallinipper. On July 7, 1851, while headed for Bay de Noque, Mich., the schooner capsized and sank during a sudden squall. The crew and captain were rescued by another vessel before it sank.
And there she lay, undisturbed, until the mid-1990s, when fishing net from a passing trawler became entangled in the sunken ship’s mast. Radovan, a native of Sheboygan and an experienced diver, heard that a fishing boat had snagged what might be a wrecked vessel. He contacted the fishing company to find out approximately where on the lake the boat had lost its netting.
Radovan and his team discovered the Gallinipper with the netting wrapped around the mast. They marked the location of the shipwreck and decided to explore it more in a later dive. Then, while attempting to retrieve the netting, the fishing crew accidentally broke off one of the masts.
By scouring newspaper records archived in libraries, Radovan determined that the wreck was indeed the Gallinipper.
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“Most of the newspapers had a column on ships going in and out of their ports,” Radovan explained.
“You put two and two together,” he continued, “where it’s sitting, how big it is, and what kind of cargo it was carrying.”
A few years later, Radovan and his team explored the wreckage in more detail. Because invasive mussels eat lake vegetation, he explained, the water was clearer than in years past and it was easier to see the wreckage.
“It was in excellent shape,” recalled Radovan. “It was sitting up. The mast that wasn’t pulled out was laying across the deck.”
The Gallinipper is just one of the thousands of shipwrecks that lie on the bottom of the Great Lakes, noted Radovan. In Wisconsin, a state law passed in 1987 protects historical shipwrecks in Wisconsin waters and prohibits divers from removing items from shipwrecks.
In 2015, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration proposed creating a national maritime sanctuary in Lake Michigan to protect the nearly 100 shipwrecks in an area of the Lake Michigan spanning approximately from Mequon up to Algoma. Designating the area as a sanctuary will protect the wrecks from being disturbed and mark wreck sites with buoys. NOAA is currently reviewing public comments on the proposal.
Radovan hopes that area of Lake Michigan does become a maritime sanctuary.
“It will protect the cultural resources and educate people on the cultural resources of the lake,” said Radovan.
Radovan’s program will be held at on the second floor of Dewey’s Restaurant and Sport Bar, 600 Main St. The cost to attend is $5. There is no charge for RLAMP members.