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Friday, 08 April 2016 10:32

Geneva Lake shipwrecks are 'time capsules into the past'

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The Lucius Newberry, a Geneva Lake excursion vessel in the late 1800s, sunk in the lake in 1891 after it caught fire along the dock and the harbor master cut the lines to avoid the spread of the fire. The Lucius Newberry, a Geneva Lake excursion vessel in the late 1800s, sunk in the lake in 1891 after it caught fire along the dock and the harbor master cut the lines to avoid the spread of the fire. Library of Congress, American Memory

WALWORTH COUNTY SUNDAY -- There are stories in Geneva Lake. Some are fascinating, others a little creepy.  

Ask Dan Johnson, owner of Loves Park Scuba, an Illinois diving school, and the Lockwood Pioneer Scuba Diving Museum. Johnson has been diving in Geneva Lake since 1974, systematically covering most of the shoreline in search of antique bottles -- of which he’s found dozens.

“Visibility is so much better than it used to be,” said Johnson, who coordinates an annual fall cleanup of Geneva Lake by scuba divers. “You now can see 4 to 10 feet, from 20 to 30 feet, thanks to zebra mussels.”   

Visible from 12 feet down in that cold, dark water is the upside down, rusted frame of a Volkswagen mini-bus, found by scuba divers near Black Point.

Johnson said the owner of the Volkswagen was last seen late on a New Year’s Eve some 30 years ago, doing doughnuts with the minibus on frozen Lake Como. Then he and the car just disappeared. Bones were supposedly located nearby the car frame. 

Johnson said divers also once discovered a heavy-duty bag with a crematorium tag attached, containing human ashes, at the bottom of the lake.

Loves Park Scuba offers shipwreck charters, and Johnson said he and other divers have explored wrecks in Geneva Lake, from cabin cruisers to 19th-century sidewheel vessels.

“The bones of those old shipwrecks are a part of our history,” he said.

Caitlin Zant, a maritime archaeologist with the Wisconsin Historical Society, has been studying stories of shipwrecks like the Titanic and the Edmund Fitzgerald since she was 7.

As a scuba diver, she’s examined Civil War shipwrecks off waters in North Carolina and documented wrecks in Lake Michigan and Lake Superior -- where cold, fresh waters help preserve the remains.

“It’s amazing to see, especially the shipwrecks that are deeper and remarkably intact,” she said. “You’re able to go into the ship, and it brings this remarkable feeling seeing something nobody’s seen for the last 150 years. Shipwrecks are like time capsules into the past.”

WHS accounts for 750 historic losses of shipwrecks in Wisconsin and knows where 177 of them are, Zant said.

WHS doesn’t go in search of shipwrecks, but documents those which have been found. The organization depends on grants and private donations to fund expeditions, Zant said.

Maritime archaeologists like Zant compile information about the wrecks from sources, including newspapers, loss and incident reports, local historical society files, even insurance records.

While divers can use sonar to locate wrecks, Zant said WHS has been aided by airplane and ultralight pilots who can supply GPS coordinates when they’re flying over a site. They’ve also relied on a more low-tech method: fishermen who report net hangs.

Zant points to Wisconsin’s state flag, showing how important the maritime industry was to the state.

“The state seal has a sailor and a miner on it,” she said. “There’s also an arm and a hammer, and the arm is holding a caulking mallet. Shipbuilders used to hammer in caulk between the wooden layers of a ship to prevent leaking.”

Early in the state’s history, a big part of its economy came through the Great Lakes, from the major shipping companies’ frigates to individuals who transported lumber or grain to small scow schooners. Inland waterways supported smaller scale economies.

Zant has scuba-dived in Geneva Lake. In January, she gave a presentation on Geneva Lake shipwrecks for Black Point Estate.

While Geneva Lake never was used as a major transportation route, it was well-traveled in the 19th century by smaller, privately owned sailboats and primarily steam vessels, she said. The shape of the vessels was different here.

“With 20-foot waves on the Great Lakes, you couldn’t have a narrow boat because it could tip over, but on Geneva Lake, you were close to shore in bad weather, and you wouldn’t get such high waves, so you saw narrower, longer, taller vessels, some with two decks,” Zant said.

After the Civil War, wealthy residents of Milwaukee and Chicago were attracted to Lake Geneva as a summer resort area and built many of the mansions still standing today. Because of limited passable roads in the area, there was a demand for cross-lake travel that allowed summer residents to get to and from their homes, Zant said.

The beauty of the lake and surrounding area gave way to a booming excursion boat business, too, for visitors and residents who, in the days before air conditioning, found a day tour on the lake in summer an enjoyable way to cool off.

One steamer, the Geneva, met trains in Williams Bay and transported passengers and freight to homes and camps around Geneva Lake. The website noted that the boat’s afterdeck was often piled so high with luggage at the bow and the stern that the boat “looked like a floating baggage wagon.”

The heavy loads turned fatal for the Geneva, causing her frames and planks to soften, and in 1929 the boat ran aground. It was taken out of service and sunk in the lake, a common, cost-effective practice at the time, Zant said.

Heavy use also led to the sinking of The Lady of the Lake. Built in 1872 as a side-wheel steamer, the vessel was 98 feet long and could reach a top speed of 16 mph. The Lady was able to carry 200 passengers in regular trips across the lake or special excursions.

It was refurbished in 1882, but 11 years later had outlived its usefulness and was sunk.

“Today it lies in 30 feet of water. Its lower hull is very intact and you can still see into the hold,” Zant said.    

Other vessels in Geneva Lake met with accidents, like the Ariel, a schooner that was badly damaged by surging waters after an earthen dam broke in the spring of 1851.

The Majestic, an 1891 steamer that was converted to a gas-engine, all-steel hulled yacht with a mahogany cabin, stained glass skylight and electric lighting, was an excursion boat until the summer of 1947, when it exploded and caught fire while leaving a local pier with 35 passengers aboard. Passengers and crew managed to escape without serious injuries, but the boat was unrepairable and was sunk.

One of the most famous shipwrecks in Geneva Lake was the Lucius Newberry. Built in 1875, the side-wheel passenger steamer was 115 feet long and could carry 700 passengers.

It was considered one of Lake Geneva’s most luxurious excursion vessels with décor that included crystal and brass fixtures and even oil paintings.

At 4 a.m. on Dec. 9, 1891, the Lucius Newberry, tied to the dock, caught fire and couldn’t be put out. The harbor master, not wanting to risk the fire spreading, cut the vessel’s lines loose and let it float out into Geneva Bay, where it sunk.

In July 1981 the Lucius Newberry was found by accident and salvaged by a group of local divers. According to, “The city would not support their salvage operations. There were repeated incidents of threats by the salvage crew to ward off any other bounty hunters.”

Zant said the Lucius Newberry’s machinery, including paddle wheels and all remaining fixtures were taken up from the site.

During her dive in the area, a video was taken of the shipwreck, showing the ghostly lines of the vessel, encrusted in mussels.

“Today, it lies in 75 feet of water, broken up,” Zant said. “You can still see the vessel’s planning and upright stem post.”



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