Father-Daughter Duo Finds 152-Year-Old Shipwreck in Green Bay

A casual fishing trip turned into a historical discovery for Tim and Henley Wollak, who stumbled upon the remains of a ship that sank during a deadly fire in 1871.

The Mystery of the Sonar Images

Tim Wollak and his 6-year-old daughter, Henley, were fishing near Green Island in Green Bay, Wisconsin, this summer when their boat’s sonar device picked up something unusual on the lake floor. Henley thought the shapes looked like something an octopus’ tentacles might leave behind, while her dad suspected they had found a shipwreck. He posted the sonar images to a few Facebook groups, hoping to get some answers.

Little did they know that they had discovered a long-lost 150-year-old shipwreck that was linked to one of the deadliest wildfires in American history.

The Identification of the George L. Newman

The Wisconsin Historical Society came across Wollak’s photos and matched them to its database of historic shipwreck losses based on the ship’s location and features. They 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.

Father-Daughter Duo Finds

Maritime archaeologists believe the ship is the George L. Newman, a 122-foot-long barkentine that was built in Black River, Ohio, in 1855 and used in the lumber trade.

The Fate of the George L. Newman

The George L. Newman met its tragic end on October 8, 1871, during the Great Peshtigo Fire, which started as a brush fire and quickly spread across 1.2 million to 1.5 million acres of northeastern Wisconsin. The fire destroyed whole communities, killing over an estimated 1,200 people. It remains the deadliest wildfire in American history.

On that fateful day, the George L. Newman was trying to deliver a cargo of lumber from Little Suamico, Wisconsin, to Green Bay, but smoke from the fire was so thick that there was little visibility, causing an error in navigation. The ship ran aground on the southeast end of Green Island and became stuck.

The crew was rescued by Samuel Drew, the Green Island lighthouse keeper, and stayed at the lighthouse for a week, trying to salvage what they could from the sinking ship. Eventually, they abandoned the vessel, which broke up in storms and ice over the years and was covered by sand. It was “largely forgotten” until the Wollaks stumbled upon it this summer.

The Significance of the Discovery

The discovery of the George L. Newman is not only a rare find, but also a valuable piece of history that sheds light on the impact of the Great Peshtigo Fire and the importance of the lumber industry in Wisconsin. The ship is one of the few remaining examples of a barkentine, a type of sailing vessel that could be operated with a smaller number of crew members.

The Wisconsin Historical Society, in partnership with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, plans to go out to take a closer look at the shipwreck in the spring to confirm its identity and document its condition.

The Wollaks, meanwhile, are thrilled with their discovery and hope to learn more about the ship and its story. Henley, however, was a little disappointed that there was no treasure to be found on the boat.

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