Sunken cargo ship found after 125 years near harbor

Echoes of our past
William & Joy Wangemann • forThe Review

If you were to visit Sheboygan Harbor in the year 1890 it would appear vastly different than it appears now.

First of all you would be greeted by a forest of masts that stretched from the Harbor entrance, upriver a far as today’s Kiwanis Park. Dozens of sailing ships and a few steamers would be loading and unloading cargo from the numerous factories that bordered the river.

In those days nearly everything that was shipped into Sheboygan or shipped out went by the way of graceful schooners, steamers or the slow plodding but highly efficient ships known as scow schooners.

Almost everyone is familiar with the graceful schooners with their sharp bows and beautifully rounded lines.

The scow schooner was a rather mundane vessel with a flat bottom and straight sides that narrowed very little in width as you moved forward in the vessel. Some of the scows had an absolutely flat bow but most of them had a slightly V shape bow known as the cut water.

The reason for building a ship with such rectangular dimensions was that it could carry a greater amount of cargo and could be more easily and cheaply built than the much faster graceful hull of the schooners.

The I.A. Johnson, which was a scow schooner, was built in 1866 in Dover, Ohio. At the time of her loss she was owned by the Freyberg Brothers who were local business men.

The ship was not a large one. She was only 83 feet long, her beam (width) was 22 feet and she drew 6 feet of water and she was rigged with 2 masts all of which made her a rather small vessel. She had a crew of four men and was commanded by Captain Mullenberg who was also part owner of the ship.

September 22, 1890 the Johnson was taking on cargo consisting of provisions bound for Washington Island which lies just off the tip of Door County.

At a little after 1a.m. on Sep- tember 23 she cleared Sheboygan Harbor and set sail for her destination. A ship traveling North on Lake Michigan was said to be down bound which meant that she was heading down towards the St Lawrence River and then to the Atlantic Ocean. If a ship was traveling South on Lake Michigan it was said to be up bound. In other words, if a ship entered the St Lawrence River it has to sail up the river to get into the Great Lakes.

This created a somewhat confusing situation on Lake Michigan in which a ship traveling North could be said to be sailing Down North and if the reverse was true it was said to be sailing Up South.

This convention, by the way, is still in use today. For the purpose of this article and to avoid confusion we will simply refer to the directions the vessels traveled as North or South! As the Johnson cleared the harbor she set her course north towards Washington Island. It was now nearly 2 am.

At this same time the large graceful 3 masted schooner, Lincoln Dall, commanded by Captain Ed McCall, was heading down the lake towards Chicago, her home port, with a heavy load of lumber.

At about 3:30 am the lookout who was manning the watch tower on top of the lifesaving station noticed what he thought to be a ship in distress approximately 12 miles north of the station.

The steam tug Sheboygan, was berthed near the lifesaving station. The sleeping crew of the tug was awakened and sent out to investigate what appeared to be a ship in distress.

One might wonder how the lookout in the tower could see a ship in distress 12 miles away. It was common procedure for a ship in distress to hoist a large red lantern to the top of its tallest mast which would have made the signal very easy to see.

As the two ships approached each other on opposite courses the Captain of the Dall saw the Johnson heading toward them on a course that would bring her across the bow of the Dall which was on a starboard (right side) tack giving her the right of way.

A ship tacking is a maneuver that describes a zig zag course when she is sailing with adverse wind conditions. Captain McCall of the Dall expected the oncoming vessel to give him the right of way. It did not and the two ships collided.

The heavier Dall struck the Johnson on the right side of her bow, caving it in. Water poured into the stricken vessel as the bow began to sink.

The Dall also was severely damaged. Most of her forward rigging was carried away and her hull damaged, but she was not sinking.

The crew of the sinking ship was taken aboard the Dall which then attempted to make Sheboygan Harbor. Soon the tug Sheboygan arrived on the scene and was surprised to find the Johnson just barely afloat with the forward section completely submerged and her stern sticking some 6 feet out of the water.

Her masts were still standing and rigged with her sails. The tug Sheboygan then fastened a hawser to the Dall and then another line was made fast to the stern of the Dall and fastened to the nearly upright stern of the Johnson. The Sheboygan then took both ships under tow.

After towing the two damaged vessels to Sheboygan the stern of the Johnson collapsed, the tow line tore loose and she disappeared. The Sheboygan then successfully towed the Dall into Sheboygan Harbor for repairs.

Over 125 years later marine historian and skilled diver, and a good friend Steve Radovan of Sheboygan, located what is believed to be the wreck of the long lost ship.

It took many hours of research in old newspapers and records and searching the bottom of Lake Michigan with his 25 foot sonar and underwater camera equipped boat. After he examined the films of the wreck Radovan concluded that there was a strong possibility that the ship he had found was none other than the I.A. Johnson.

I also wish to thank Steve for almost all the information supplied to me from his extensive files from which this story was written.

Also a very special thanks to Captain Rocky Groh, retired, who sailed the Great Lakes most of his life for his expertise on the technical aspects of this story.

Today’s tidbit: Sailors were a superstitious lot, they believed that when a ship was christened and a bottle was struck on her bow if the bottle did not break the vessel would be a bad luck ship. If a ship sailed on Friday this too meant bad luck for the ship. They also believed that to change the name of a ship was bad luck.

If the readers of this column have any comments please feel free to contact me at 458-2974 or email me at

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