By Russ Green, Superintendent of the Wisconsin Shipwreck Coast NMS.

On August 16, 2021 NOAA designated the 962 square-mile Wisconsin Shipwreck Coast National Marine Sanctuary to conserve 36 historic shipwrecks with exceptional archaeological, recreational, and national significance. Co-managed by NOAA and the state of Wisconsin, the sanctuary expands on the state’s 30-year stewardship of these historic sites, bringing new opportunities for research, resource protection, education, and community engagement.

From permanent moorings at shipwrecks sites, to high-resolution lakebed mapping, to real-time wind and wave data buoys, the sanctuary seeks to facilitate recreation and deepen our understanding of Lake Michigan. In partnership with local communities, the sanctuary provides a national stage for promoting heritage tourism and recreation and safeguarding these resources for future generations.

For millennia humans have utilized the immense Great Lakes water highway. Sanctuary shipwrecks represent a cross-section of vessel types that played a central role in developing and expanding the U.S. between the 1830s and 1930s. The earliest vessels traded locally, creating essential economic and cultural links between Wisconsin’s developing lakeshore communities. Later, innovative sailing vessels and steel-hulled freighters transported America’s business and industry between the Midwest, eastern seaboard, and beyond. Passenger ships brought thousands of immigrants to Wisconsin, making possible the dramatic growth of the Midwest’s cities, industries, and farms.

Lake Michigan’s cold freshwater has preserved sanctuary shipwrecks as unique historical, archaeological, and recreational sites. These historic sites are a tangible connection to past generations whose tenacity and entrepreneurial spirit help build the nation. Twenty-one are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Research suggests that another 60 shipwrecks may lie undiscovered in the sanctuary.

The Office of National Marine Sanctuaries serves as the trustee for a network of underwater parks encompassing more than 600,000 square miles of marine and Great Lakes waters from Washington state to the Florida Keys, and from Lake Huron to American Samoa. The network includes a system of 15 national marine sanctuaries and Papahānaumokuākea and Rose Atoll marine national monuments.

This article originally appeared in the June 2023 Newsletter of the Wisconsin Domestic Maritime Coalition (WIDMAC).