The 'Greyhound bus' at the bottom of Lake Superior: 19th century shipwreck added to national register
ASHLAND, Wis. — It was built in 1861, sank in 1897 and is now memorialized on the historic register.
One of the latest shipwrecks to be added to National Register of Historic Places comes from Ashland County, about seven and a half miles off the coast of Michigan Island, part of the Apostle Island archipelago.
"It would run immigrants to come to work the factories as they were blossoming in Milwaukee and Chicago and then it would supply general supplies to the cities," said Tamara Thomsen, a maritime archaeologist with the Wisconsin Historical Society. "Then people returning east then would go back aboard the ship. So, it was sort of like the Greyhound bus of the 1860s."
Known as the Antelope, it was originally built as a steamship that moved people and cargo from Buffalo, N.Y. to western Great Lakes cities during the second half of the 19th century. Eventually it was converted into a barge that would be towed, before three masts were erected on the hull, turning it into a schooner — a transition Thomsen said was very unusual.
Coming in at 186 feet long, 31 feet wide and housing a capacity of 600 tons, it wasn't a rogue wave or some deep sea monster that took down the Antelope. Rather anti-climatically, it sank when it was being towed too fast.
"Seams tend to open up in rough seas," said Thomsen. "but, when the Antelope was being towed, the seams opened up, it took on too much water and the pumps couldn't keep it out. So they abandoned it."
While some ships rest at the bottom of the lake with gaping holes in the hull and broken planks hanging off the sides, the Antelope is still very much intact. The cabin snapped off when it sank, but the masts and rigging are still standing — even the paint with the name of the ship is still emblazoned on the side.
"Everything on the ship was basically a time capsule," Thomsen said. "When it went down, it went down with everything. That gives us a snapshot in time."
Using the help of Tom Crossmon's remote operated vehicles (ROV's) helped reveal some of those pieces of history. Bunk beds and a boiler were discovered as well as the running lights used for navigation. There was even a workbench with a vice and some other tools used for repairing parts of the ship still there.
"We usually spend about 6-8 hours on a wreck," said Crossmon, owner of Crossmon Consulting. "We don't want to get hung up on anything or damage the wreck in any way, which is sometimes very difficult to do because it's so dark down there."
About the size of suitcases, the ROV's are equipped with both sonar and a video capabilities that collect data on the structures below the water. Operated by a console on the ship, a live video feed is fed to the controller where the operator move where the archaeologists ask.
Surveying shipwrecks is part of Crossmon's job. He does multiple sites a year. Thomsen estimates there are close to 750 shipwrecks in Wisconsin waters alone, of which close to 200 have been found.
"There's great potential to be able to find shipwrecks," said Thomsen. "Sometimes they wash up on the beach, but it shouldn't be surprising when we find some, not to discount the work of the people that find them."
It took about six years to find the Antelope. Cloquet native Jerry Eliason and his partner Ken Merryman found the ship in September of 2016. It's an expensive hobby, which is why not many people commit to those hunts. It's also probably why many of those shipwrecks haven't been discovered.
Funding for this particular shipwreck venture came from a pot of money that had been filled through the sale of historic photos, the general fund and the some money from the Wisconsin Maritime Museum.