Peering into the deep

Port Exploreum’s ‘Murmurs from the Deep’ exhibit to provide a unique look at area shipwrecks, intrigue surrounding the loss of the Linda E. and crew

INSTALLING A DISPLAY about the wreck of the schooner Northerner at the Port Exploreum Monday were Joseph Rugowski, president of Digital Design Services, and Monica Knutson, the company’s creative director. The Northerner sank in 1868 after capsizing off Port Ulao in the Town of Grafton. Photo by Sam Arendt
Ozaukee Press staff

The sounds of water rushing in and hulls groaning as they sink into the abyss.

Headlines and stories memorializing lost ships and lost lives.

Photographs of shipwrecks in their final resting places on the bottom of Lake Michigan.

These are the sights and sounds of “Murmurs From the Deep,” the exhibit opening at the Port Exploreum on Sunday, March 3.

“It’s going to be a pretty exciting experience,” Port Washington Historical Society President Bill Moren said. “You’ll be hearing the sounds, very subtly, and seeing the words as you look at the exhibit. You’re not just walking in quiet.

“There’s a lot to draw you in.”

The title of the exhibit also refers to the stories behind the wrecks, said Joseph Rugowski, president of Digital Design Services, which designed and is installing the exhibit. 

“There’s just a wealth of stories about these shipwrecks,” Rugowski said. 

The exhibit is a look at almost all of the known shipwrecks in Ozaukee County waters, from the oldest — the Niagara, which sank in 1856 — to the newest — the Linda E., the last commercial fishing tug based in Port Washington, which was run over and sunk while fishing in December 1998.

The decision to feature the shipwrecks seemed to be the right thing to do, especially considering the Exploreum’s location on the lakefront, Moren said, adding that partnerships with the Wisconsin Historical Society and Digital Design Services “bring us resources that will bring this exhibit to life.”

Many of the artifacts on display come from either the Port Washington or state historical societies, he said. They include everything from a bell from the Niagara that partially melted when the steamer burned and sank and flatware engraved with the ship’s name to a polished brass decorative capstan from the Atlanta and a dead-eye from an unknown vessel.

The stories of shipwrecks, said Moren, capture the imagination like few others. 

“They’re just a fascinating part of our history,” he said. “It’s compelling to learn these stories.”

Tamara Thomsen, a maritime archeologist with the Wisconsin Historical Society, agreed.

“There’s so much of our history that can be told through them,” she said. “They really tell the stories of people who worked on the lake, of immigrants sailing to what they hoped would be a better life.”

They also lead into discussions of issues facing the lake, such as invasive species and pollution, she said.

In addition to the artifacts and photos, a kiosk will provide a variety of information about the Great Lakes shipwrecks and a series of speakers will provide additional information about the featured wrecks.

Both Thomsen, whose photographs of wrecks grace the exhibit, and Moren said the story of the Linda E. may be the most compelling story told in the exhibit.

The story of the Linda E. is on the second floor of the museum, while the stories of the other seven wrecks are on the first floor.

“It’s sort of a memorial,” Thomsen said. “We wanted to treat it appropriately and honor the families.”

In addition to the loss of three men on board — Captain Leif Weborg, his son-in-law Scott Matta and crew member Warren Olson — the loss of the Linda E. marked the end of commercial fishing in Port Washington.

The ship vanished on Dec. 11, 1998, leaving a mystery that gripped the community.

“No boat, no bodies, no answers,” Moren said. “It was a perfectly calm day in December. These are men who went out in huge storms and always returned, but they just vanished.”

The Coast Guard, he said, “was agonizingly slow.” 

While the search for survivors was suspended after two days, it wasn’t until June 18, 2000, that the Linda E. was found on the lake bottom southeast of Port Washington by the U.S. Navy minesweeper Defender southeast of Port Washington.

Just getting to that point took pressure from the public and former Congressman Mark Green, who demanded the Coast Guard find the vessel.

The Coast Guard found substantial evidence that the tug had been run over by the integrated tug Michigan and barge Great Lakes.

The exhibit includes a historic photo of the ship and pictures of the shipwreck taken by a remotely operated underwater vehicle, a model of it created by Jack Weinrich and a plethora of Ozaukee Press stories about the loss of the Linda E.

“You look at those headlines — ‘Without a trace,’ ‘Fishing community mourns,’ ‘Sheriff to investigate,’ ‘Pleas of families are finally heard’ — those tell the story,” Moren said. 

The other shipwrecks in the exhibit are equally compelling.

Thomsen said she believes the schooner Northerner, which sank in 1868 near Port Washington, is “the coolest thing” in the exhibit.

“It’s one of the most beautiful shipwrecks,” she said, noting the vessel was owned by Nicholas and Paul Ronk, Luxembourg immigrants who settled in Ronksville, a ghost town near Lake Church. The Northerner was loading wood north of Port and, after getting underway, was leaking badly. Even after unloading in Port, she continued to fill with water and capsized off Port Ulao in the Town of Grafton.

There’s the Senator, which is one of the deepest reported wrecks in Wisconsin, that sank in about 450 feet in 1929 while transporting 268 Nash automobiles from Milwaukee to Detroit. 

“The cars are still chained in place,” Thomsen said. “They look absolutely pristine.”

And in the wheelhouse, the wheel is broken and the engine order telegraph is still in the upright position, indicating the final order — stop — she said.

The Mahoning was a brig that sank in 1864 while being towed from Sheboygan to Milwaukee for repairs. Two men died.

The Niagara was one of the first Wisconsin shipwrecks to be discovered, Thomsen said. The steamer caught fire and sank on Sept. 24, 1856, just south of Belgium. Sixty people died, but many of the passengers and crew members survived by jumping overboard, using lifeboats or being rescued by other vessels.

The schooner Island City sank near Mequon in 1894 while traveling from Ludington, Mich., to Milwaukee. The boat was taking on water and the three-man crew prepared to abandon the ship when the captain and lifeboat were swept into the lake. The two men on board died but the captain managed to climb into the lifeboat and was washed ashore.

The Atlanta, a passenger steamship, sank in 1906 after it caught fire. All but one person was rescued. 

The steam barge J.M. Allmendinger was blown off course while heading from Milwaukee to Sturgeon Bay and ran aground near Mequon on Nov. 26, 1895.

Also included in the exhibit is the story of Port native Roger Erdmann, a Coast Guard commander with a storied career. Erdmann was on a ship that was part of the invasion forces that landed tanks on Okinawa and Marines on Guam. 

After the war, he served on search and rescue ships in the North Atlantic and took part in what is considered one of the most significant rescues in Coast Guard history after two tankers split in two during a storm off Cape Cod.

Erdmann also helped rescue the captain and crew of the SS Andrea Doria when the ocean liner, which had more than 1,700 people on board, began to sink off the Massachusetts coast in 1956. He received the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic for his part in the rescue.

That portion of the exhibit, which will be on the second floor of the Exploreum, may not be completed in time for the opening, Moren said.


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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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