The Mystery Ship -A Tragedy
See:Abandoned Shipwrecks Today Below!
by Andreas Jordahl Rhude
On July 29th, 1969 President Nixon was in Thailand on his way to
visit Vietnam. Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins were
still in quarantine nine days after Armstrong set foot on the moon.
Senator Edward M. Kennedy was in seclusion after the Chappaquiddick
tragedy. "The Courtship of Eddie's Father," starring Bill
Bixby, was soon to hit the television airwaves and Woodstock was
just days away. A fateful event took place that same day in the
summer of 1969. It was hailed as a triumph of the year -- the
resurrection of an historic relic. A wooden schooner, the
"Mystery Ship," was raised from the depths of the waters
of Green Bay. She had sat on the floor of the bay for 100 years and
was now seeing daylight for the first time in a century. The
spectacle received nationwide media attention. It was the
culmination of two years of tireless effort of a small crew of men.
But alas, her fate was one of ruin, and it was a fate predicted by
one man with expertise in wood.
So… how was the Mystery Ship rediscovered? It
was all coincidence. In November 1967, a commercial fisherman's nets
became tangled in an object at a depth of 40 feet near Chambers
Island in the waters of Green Bay. Charts indicated that the depth
at the same location was 105 feet. The fisherman, wanting to salvage
his costly nets, hired a scuba diver to free them. That diver, Frank
Hoffman, found the nets tangled in what amazingly appeared to be a
ship's mast. Diving deeper, he found an ostensibly intact ship at a
slight list on the clay bottom of Green Bay.
This underwater sketch shows how six
powerful cables were rigged to the Alvin Clark at its grave site in
110 feet of water. The cables were hooker up to a barge on
water where men and women controlled winches that slowly lifted the
218 ton ship to the bottom of the barge for its underwater journey
Hoffman, a veteran diver, was familiar with ship
salvage operations. He investigated the ship through additional
dives and learned that the wooden hull was indeed intact. Both masts
were still upright and in good condition. He figured she could be
raised to the surface and possibly even be rigged for sailing once
again. He kept his discovery secret and by early 1968, he had
secured the federal salvage rights. During the summer of 1968,
Hoffman and his fellow divers slowly recovered artifacts from the
ship. They were carefully removed and then cataloged by James Quinn,
director of the Neville Public Museum in the city of Green Bay. Some
of the items found were the captain's writing desk, a brass locket,
a wallet, clay pipes, a water pitcher, a clock, an oil lamp with
patent date of August 11, 1863, tools, and three pennies. Even a
crock of cheese - still full, was pulled from the ship! Divers could
only be in the water for about fifteen minutes at a time due to the
cold water temperatures hovering around 40° F. It was a
painstakingly slow process.
With the assistance of ship builders Harold and
Jim Derusha of Marinette Marine Corporation, Hoffman and his crew
began the complicated task of bringing the Mystery Ship to the
surface. In 1968, they placed steel cables beneath the ship. They
used compressed air to bore holes through the mud under the ship so
that the cables could be jimmied in. About ten tons of silt was
pumped out of her holds.
The plan was to use a barge with hand winches to lift the ship off
the floor of the bay. They would then lift her up to within 40 feet
of the surface and slowly ease their way towards shore. When they
got to a water depth of about 40 feet, they would set her down to
adjust the slings and make final preparations for bringing her to
The Mystery Ship, towed to Menominee
Marina for the Blessing of the Watercraft ceremony, proved to be a
big draw. A record 30,000 persons attended the annual even in
The shipyard of Marinette Marine became the
destination for the final raising. Located about one mile inland
from Green Bay on the Menominee River, the company proved to be an
invaluable contributor to Hoffman's efforts. They let him use an
LCM6 (landing craft medium) built by the firm during the summers of
1968 and 1969. Marinette Marine also arranged to have the two 130' x
30' barges made available for the raising. On July 23rd, the vessel
was successfully lifted off the bottom, 19 fathoms deep. Starting at
4:00 a.m., the crew worked till 9:00 p.m. to lift her and tow the
entire rig towards shore. At times, members of the news crew that
were on hand pitched in to relieve the salvagers. Most of the
cranking of the winches was done by hand! As the day progressed,
squalls kicked up causing even more anxiety. The week before, the
two masts were lifted to the surface and brought to the Marinette
shipyard. They were found to be in excellent condition. While all
this was occurring, the identity of the ship was still a puzzle,
thus the name "Mystery Ship" was attached to the effort.
She was later identified as the "Alvin Clark" through
contemporary newspaper accounts, national archives, and U.S. Coast
Guard records. A stencil found on the ship was positively attributed
to one of the sailors on the Alvin Clark -- Mr. Michael Cray of
Toronto -- one of the two survivors of the sinking.
The final lifting took place on Tuesday, July
29th, 1969, at the Marinette Marine docks. About 4000 spectators
(including the author of this article!) were on hand as she was
lifted from her watery grave. Four cranes, two on the docks and two
on a barge, began lifting at 10:24 a.m. and soon the bowsprit was
above the water's surface. Cheers from the crowds and horn blasts
from spectators in their boats rang out as soon as the bow emerged.
After being pumped out of water and silt, she floated on her own!
Just over one week after she was raised to the
surface and her holds cleaned of the silt, she was towed to the
Menominee harbor. She was on display during the annual blessing of
the fleet on August 3rd. An estimated 30,000 people saw the 122 year
old relic. It was a happy day for those responsible for bringing her
up from the sea bottom.
The "Alvin Clark" was a lumber schooner
owned by Captain William M. Higgie of Racine, Wisconsin. The ship
was running empty and she was under full sail heading to Oconto on
June 19th, 1864, when she capsized in a sudden storm just off the
shores of Chambers Island. The Civil War was raging in the east and
southern parts of the county at that time. Built near Detroit,
Michigan in 1847, the Alvin Clark was 105 feet in length, had a beam
of 25 feet, and displaced 218 tons. She was rigged with two masts.
Her foremast was square rigged, placing her in the brigantine class.
insure that the ship would not be torn apart while drying out after
being in the water for 100 years, an enclosure was built around the
ship. It was a makeshift dry-kiln used to dry her out very slowly.
Over the winter of 1969-1970, she was slowly dried out, cleaned up,
and ultimately put on display in Menominee, Michigan at the Mystery
The Alvin Clark-- back from its watery
The biggest hurdle overcome by Hoffman, so he
thought, was the actual raising of the relic from the sea bottom. As
it turned out, insurmountable problems began once the ship was
floating again. The ship was towed across the river to Menominee and
put into a slip. Along with the artifacts displayed in a museum
building, she became a tourist attraction. The entry fees were no
where near enough to pay for the original salvage or for the upkeep
of the ancient vessel. Hoffman offered to sell the ship to
Menominee. When they balked, he sought buyers in other ports of the
Great Lakes. In 1976 Hoffman said, "Our number one goal right
now is to preserve and take care of the ship." He continued,
"This ship is a piece of Great Lakes history. It tells us now
and it will tell generations later what the pioneer lumber and
sailing era was all about. People and organizations spend all kinds
of money to build replicas of ships that don't have nearly the
historic value of the Alvin Clark and we can't get a dime to
preserve this ship. I don't understand it." However, with no
funds, nothing was done to insure a long life for the ship. Hoffman
sold the ship in 1987 to a group of local investors. They too,
failed to preserve the ship.
The ship was well-preserved in her watery grave
for 105 years. Why? In order for wood to decay, four elements are
required: oxygen, a favorable temperature, a food source (the wood
itself), and moisture. If one of the four is eliminated, wood will
never decay. The cold water temperatures of Lake Michigan, along
with a lack of oxygen, ensured that the wood of the Alvin Clark
would not decay. Water action and movement of sand did, naturally,
weather the wood surfaces to a certain extent. But because she did
not break up while sinking, and her hull was intact when brought to
the surface, she was able to float again on her own.
Once exposed to the air and temperatures favorable
to rotting, it was just a matter of time before she succumbed to
decay. Measures were never taken after she dried out to protect the
wood against decay. And for this reason, it was only 25 years for
her to become decayed beyond repair. The resurrection of the ship
was a feat uncommon to man and it was hailed as a triumph of
maritime heritage. However, there was never any plan for the
disposition of the ship or for its protection.
What became of the Mystery Ship? Her ultimate
fate, a sad one, was predicted before the ship even saw the surface
of the water. On February 26, 1969 the wood expert wrote: "It
would be better that the mystery ship, the logging schooner, remain
in her watery grave where she has been preserved all these many
years, than to have her lifted ashore and go to ruin. The cost to
bring her ashore is one thing; the cost to preserve her is quite
another.” 2 These words, probably read with little enthusiasm at
the time of their writing, were to come true.
In May of 1994, the remnants of the Alvin Clark were demolished with
a bulldozer. She was rotten beyond hope of saving and her owners
were broke. The dream of Frank Hoffman faded with no ceremony. The
ship sat below the surface of the chilly waters for more than a
century, but it took only twenty-five years of being above the
surface for her to succumb to the elements. It was a sad and tragic
ending to the life and resurrection of the SS Alvin Clark, the ship
that had a second chance at life.
Although the ship is gone, the museum of artifacts
still operates as the Mystery Ship Marina and Museum. It is located
on the Menominee River in downtown Menominee, Michigan.
of information for this article include: author’s personal
recollection: Marinette Eagle-Star; Menominee Herald Leader;
Peshtigo Times; Green Bay Press-Gazette; Milwaukee Journal.
2 Letter from Maurice J. Rhude to Jim Lieburn,
February 26, 1969, In possission of the author.
ABANDONED SHIPWRECKS TODAY
by Andreas Jordahl Rhude
What would have happened if the Alvin Clark had been discovered in
1989 instead of twenty years earlier? Current federal and state
legislation, for the most part, prevents the surfacing of old
shipwrecks. In 1987, the federal government passed a law, the
Abandoned Shipwrecks Act, which regulates underwater archeology
sites, specifically shipwrecks. It states that an abandoned ship is
property of the state in which it lies. To qualify as an abandoned
ship, two criteria are necessary: it must qualify for the National
Register of Historic Places (i.e. be at least 50 years old,) and it
must be embedded in the sea bottom to a certain extent (indicating
that she had been on the sea floor for some time). The reason for
this type of legislation is to prevent the type of tragedy that
occurred to the Mystery Ship.
The state of Wisconsin enacted a law in 1988 which
provides funding for the State Underwater Archeology Program,
administered through the State Historical Society and the DNR. It is
a means to study underwater archeology sites and improve management,
and to create underwater preserves for resource protection.
According to a source at the State Historic
Preservation Office of the Minnesota Historical Society, a case in
point is the streetcar boat Minnehaha. If she were discovered on the
bottom of Lake Minnetonka today, she probably would remain there.
Unless the salvagers proved that they had committed financial
resources as well as a salvage and restoration plan, the state would
prevent the operation. When the Minnehaha was originally raised from
the bottom in 1980, she was towed ashore and she sat and rotted due
to no provisions by the salvagers for her maintenance. Ultimately,
she was restored and now plies the waters of Lake Minnetonka, but
only after a costly restoration -- much more costly than if she had
been worked upon soon after her raising.
The reasons for such laws are to protect these
unique cultural resources for the good of all citizens. Even though
the Minnehaha was ultimately a success story, more often, a tragedy
takes place such as occurred with the Alvin Clark.