The Green Bay Mystery Schooner – Winter 1969
The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.
By Dana Thomas Bowen
This tale properly starts one chilly November day in 1967, with two professional fishermen who were pulling trawl nets behind their fish tug, the Dellie W., off Chambers Island. This island is four miles long and two miles wide and is located about in the middle of Green Bay, which obtains its water from the western side of Lake Michigan, through several inlets. One of these inlets is Porte Des Morts, dubbed by the sailors as Death’s Door. Chambers Island lies some five miles off the Michigan shore to the east, and about the same distance west of the shore of the Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, peninsula.
Since quality fish were scarce, the two fishermen, Richard and Robert Grabowsky, brothers hailing from Menominee, were trying for alewife, as these were more abundant and usually found a ready market in the fertilizer field. They had set their nets to what was their usual depth for alewife trolling, somewhere around forty feet, and slowly the fish tug dragged the nets astern, the fishermen hoping to fill them with the alewife.
Suddenly their trolling lines tightened and before the tug could be stopped completely the nets had snapped the lines to the tug. The fishermen observed that the nets seemed to stay in one place in the water and not drift away. But after many attempts to retrieve their nets, which represented a considerable investment, they attached a marker buoy to them and returned to shore. They felt certain that their nets had caught on some large obstruction down in the water, that was holding them fast.
With this thought in mind and seeking help, the brothers contacted Captain Frank Hoffmann, a professional scuba diver and marina owner living in nearby Egg Harbor, Wisconsin. Hoffmann had had a lot of underwater experience, having been at one time an instructor in diving. The following day he brought his boat, with all the necessary equipment, to the spot the fishermen had marked, then donned his gear and slid into the water to clear the nets from whatever was holding them so firmly beneath the surface.
It was necessary for Diver Hoffmann to make several attempts to locate the nets and to find what was holding them fast. The water and the air were both cold for this work and it was possible for him to remain submerged for only a few minutes on each dive. Finally Hoffmann located the nets. They seemed to him to be impaled upon something resembling the broken mast of a ship far below.
Even in his chilled condition he could feel his heartbeat quicken, for it is the peak of every diver’s ambition to someday locate a sunken treasure! He managed to free the nets from what he had actually hoped for — the top of a broken mast of a ship! He signaled to his helpers on the surface to haul in, and the nets began to rise to the surface.
His job completed, Hoffmann made several more dives and to his exquisite delight he found that at the base of that mast was a ship! He had located a sunken treasure — perhaps! The vessel was standing almost upright, with only a slight list. His air was running low so he must not wait too long. The ship was in deep water — 110 feet of it— two miles northeast of Chambers Island, in Michigan waters, and it was dark down there, besides being cold. He lingered only long enough to make certain that it was a wooden sailing vessel and apparently in excellent condition from what little he could see and surmise.
He fastened a marker buoy on his new find and headed for the surface. As his crew pulled him aboard his diving boat and helped him remove his gear, he announced in short puffing sentences what he had found down there on the bottom of Green Bay almost directly beneath where their boat was rocking gently in the late afternoon swells. His crew became hilarious and shouted loudly and shook his hands! Then they started their boat and headed her back to her moorings.
Since that memorable day the life of Diver Frank Hoffmann hasn’t been the same. Word of his finding of the sunken ship spread throughout the marine-minded along the shores of Green Bay. Many scuba divers volunteered their services in the event Hoffmann would organize a salvage crew to endeavor to raise the sunken windjammer. Newspapers, radio and TV spread the news also.
But winter was close at hand and then all diving activities would necessarily cease. However, Hoffmann made good use of the remaining weather in 1967 and he made many dives, some with his friends who were most interested, and they learned considerably more about the sunken vessel. They were able to ascertain that the wreck was definitely a wooden sailing schooner with two masts, both of which were, in part, standing upright in their accustomed places on deck; the planking sides were in excellent condition, as were the after cabin sides and roof. The decks seemed almost as good as new to the excited explorers. Her steering wheel was intact, as was her rudder. No damage showed on her sides, indicating that collision had not been the cause of her sinking. No lifeboat nor work boat was found.
The men vied with each other in bringing to the surface various artifacts such as the captain’s desk, cabin heating stoves, clothing, an octant, parts of two bibles, some of the ship’s china and tools. There were no signs of bodies. Captain Hoffmann remarked that the only bone they found was a large ham bone still reposing in the ship’s galley. Coins, boots and shoes were also found, a shot gun and powder flask, and a pistol. Everything was carefully saved and tagged and the lot was pooled. At present most of what was salvaged is on display in the Neville Public Museum in Green Bay, Wisconsin. James Quinn, the Director of the Museum, was an active diver on the wreck throughout the entire salvaging operation.
But the relentless cold blasts of a northern winter all too soon put a stop to further exploration of the ship’s treasures, and the divers reluctantly put aside their gear to await the coming of the 1968 spring diving weather.
The winter was not lost time for Captain Frank Hoffmann in his work of raising his schooner find. Plans were formulated and volunteer divers were recruited, and each week several evenings were set aside for the men to meet and talk over their problems and their hopes and expectations. These men were all divers, mostly amateurs, but each one could imagine himself down on that sunken ship, prowling through her, over decks and into cabins where it had been a century since other men had moved about.
Few of the divers received pay. Most worked because of their interest in the sport, their curiosity regarding the vessel, and the hope of all divers — that they would bring up some valuable and historic treasures. Each man was anxious to get to diving on the wreck. And thus they passed the winter of 1967 and ’68.
But so many of their plans depended on what they would see and learn after they had had the opportunity of inspecting the ship. The chief question along this line was, could the wreck be raised and refloated? Every diver in the crew had high hopes of this, even before he had inspected the hull. Each one appeared to have unbounded faith in the project.
At length the sun melted the ice on Green Bay and some balmy breezes helped warm the water slightly. Hoffmann and his crew loaded their well-cleaned and polished equipment on his diving craft, the 26-foot Sea Witch and 35-foot Sea Ranger, and returned to the wreck off Chambers Island.
The salvage work during the summer of 1968 proved to be the hardest yet undertaken by the divers. It strained their strength, their enthusiasm, and their faith, but they continued to dive on the wreck throughout the entire summer and well into the fall, until once again the weather forced them to stop, this time at the end of November.
The divers had put in a most interesting summer, however, on their chosen project. Uppermost in each man’s mind was to find out the name of the ship on which they were at work. But this did not happen. Not one clew did any diver bring or send to the surface! Every item was scrutinized most carefully, hoping that it might shed some information as to the history and identity of the old windjammer lying on the bottom. But the entire summer had passed without a single clew.
The diving was difficult, even though the men were favored with many days of sunshine and warm weather. The schooner lay in 110 feet of water, and at that depth the temperature held steadily at around 36 degrees, and it was always dark. Each man carried a small electric flashlight fastened to his wrist, which cast a feeble light, that he used to guide himself in working in, on, and around the wreck. Then too, it was absolutely essential that he not remain down for longer than twenty minutes on any one dive, after which he must rest for three hours on the surface before making another dive. But each man stayed on the job, pay or no pay. For the most part, they worked on the job eighteen hours a day, and some, seven days a week!
The winter of 1968-’69 was spent in working out further and more elaborate plans. Convinced that the schooner was in good condition, the divers decided to try to raise the vessel. They figured that she was at least one hundred feet long, and about twenty-five feet beam. All her structural members appeared strong enough to withstand the strains of raising her, they believed.
After many conferences, and days of deep discussion, the group definitely voted to raise the wreck — or at least to try. With this decision their enthusiasm reached new heights and their faith was strengthened.
To be sure, there were many difficulties they were not able, at the moment, to figure out how to overcome, but their combined faith welled up to strengthen their decision to proceed as soon as weather permitted. All signs were “Go.”
So, as soon as conditions permitted, early in the spring of 1969, Hoffmann’s divers were back on the mystery wreck on the bottom of Green Bay. Nothing to indicate the name of the vessel they were working on had as yet been uncovered. All hands were still working just for thrills and excitement. By May things were progressing nicely.
Now, all their efforts were toward raising the schooner. They noted that she still had a slight list. Attention was turned to clearing out the accumulation of silt from inside her hull and from around the keel outside, so that heavy stout wire lines could be worked under the hull to raise her. This work required equipment which the divers themselves were unable to provide — a larger and heavier surface working boat, and heavy duty pumps to bring up the silt — to name a couple of the most urgent needs.
At this point the divers were able to interest Mr. Harold Derusha and his son, Mr. James R. Derusha, president and vice president respectively, of the Marinette Marine Corporation, of Marinette, Wisconsin, a shipbuilding and repair plant on the Menominee River, and these men extended much needed help, both financial and technical, to the faithful diving crew. They loaned the men their Cleo’s Barge, a converted landing craft, which was provided with heavy pumps and other necessary equipment and tools for the divers to proceed with the raising of their vessel. Again the workers’ enthusiasm and faith had received another big boost, as the silt gushed out of the schooner day and night. Then came the day when all was in readiness to begin the raising of the old wind- jammer! Excitement ran high.
On July 22nd, 1969, a 130-foot steel salvage barge was placed exactly over the sunken schooner, which still rested on the bottom, and heavy cables were run down and attached to the six stout wire lines which had been jetted under the hull in strategic spots. Her broken masts were removed. The cables were made fast to the four hand winches on the deck of the barge. Spectators and crew alike joined in the arm and back exercise of turning the cranks on the winches. It required the combined strength of three men at each winch, making one hundred turns, to raise the wreck just eight inches! A most tiring task.
We quote here the words of Captain Hoffmann, who says, “The lift took three days. The first day we hooked up and leveled the ship. The second day we raised to forty feet and towed to just off Menominee, Michigan. The third day [July 25] we raised to the bottom of the barge and towed up the river to Marinette Marine Corporation dock. Everyone worked almost continuously with very little sleep the last three days. Saturday, July 26th and Sunday, the 27th, we rested. Monday, the 28th, we hooked up the cables on the cranes, and lifted to the surface the following day, Tuesday, July 29th, 1969.”
Friday, July 25th, 1969, had been a great day for Captain Frank Hoffmann and every man in his crew, and also for the two Derusha officials of the Marinette Marine Corporation, who had helped so greatly with equipment and funds, as the old wooden lake freighter schooner slowly wended her way up the river and into the yards of the shipbuilding company.
The local newspapers had given much publicity to the salvaging work and the folks of the two cities of Marinette, Wisconsin, and Menominee, Michigan, just across the Menominee River from each other, had followed the efforts of the divers and now everyone was jubilant over this success. Only the bowsprit of the mystery vessel, below and under the barge, showed above the waves. But that was enough for the viewers on shore and a large fleet of small boats which escorted the tug and her tow up the river. Whistles and horns blew noisily. People gathered on the banks to watch the tow go past. It was a big day on the Menominee River!
It required four powerful cranes in the plant of Marinette Marine to lift the schooner up to the surface, while strong pumps cleared the vessel of the water in her hold. Her decks and cabin, which had been underwater for over a century, again felt the sunshine and the refreshing life-giving air. Reports are that Captain Hoffmann and Mr. Harold Derusha were the first to set foot on the ship, quickly followed by all the divers who had worked on the wreck and had trod her decks when she lay on the bottom in one hundred ten feet of water in the murky darkness. Now it was so much different!
Again the folks of the countryside for a hundred and more miles around flocked to the river to see the raised ship. A small sign — the crew’s slogan — on the deckhouse of Cleo’s Barge read “Faith Can Move Mountains.” In the thick of the celebration, someone was seen pasting the word “Did” over “Can” on the sign! This seemed to be the consensus of opinion of all the many hundreds who came to the river that momentous day.
The ancient schooner built of wood from the Michigan forests, presumably, was in almost perfect condition. Her decks and cabin roof were entirely solid, her side railing stanchions were firm, her steering wheel in the stern of the vessel, as was the custom in her day, was intact, and her anchor winch, with the chain still neatly wrapped around it, were all there for the much interested public to see. Her two iron anchors were also intact. She had no leaks after all those years she lay on the bottom. Her hull indicated that she carried no cargo when she went down, although she did show signs of having been in the lumber trade. There were no bodies found.
After the vessel rode upon the water’s surface, it was noted by the divers that she had an unusual bow formation as compared with pictures of the contemporary schooners of the Great Lakes. The bow of this salvaged schooner was considerably more bluff and plain — somewhat on the style of the whaling schooners of New England. This has not been satisfactorily explained and so adds to the further mystery of the already mysterious ship.
Outstanding in interest among the collection of artifacts recovered is a personal stencil found in the ship’s fo’c’s’le which reads, “Mich. Cray, Toronto, C. W.” This item, a metal plate apparently made of copper,
comes closest, probably, to connecting the raised vessel with the Alvin Clark than anything yet found. Records indicate that one of the two survivors of the Clark sinking was named Michael J. Cray, reportedly born in Toronto, Canada, in 1843, who had served one year in the Union Army during 1862-63. U.S. Army infantry buttons were also among the artifacts brought up.
Each diver in the crew searched most carefully for anything that might indicate the name of the ship — but nothing was found except a few trinkets which evidently belonged to members of her sailing crew. The one positive identification of a vessel is the Certificate Number which is always deeply carved in the main beam of the cabin of every wooden ship when she is built. This number is assigned by the United States authorities. Every ship in United States Registry must carry such a number — but not this one which Captain Hoffmann had just raised and brought into Marinette! And thereby hangs her mystery.
But history does have a way of “clinging” to everything, not always in a very definite way, but in stories from one person to another handed down over the years. However, the newspapers are our most reliable source of daily recorded history; and so it was to these that diver Frank Hoffmann and his helpers turned for help in identifying their salvaged schooner.
Local maritime authorities knew that a schooner by the name of Alvin Clark was lost during a terrific storm on Green Bay during the Civil War between the States. Newsmen of today and students of marine history began checking back on the old vessel news and records. They found that a schooner named Alvin Clark was lost in a gale off Chambers Island on June 29th, 1864. Three sailors were lost, Captain Francis B. Higgie of Racine, his mate and a seaman. The vessel is believed to have been owned and operated by two or more Higgie brothers, all of Racine, Wisconsin, and would possibly carry a crew of five or six men, including officers. She was reported bound up the bay, light, heading for either Oconto or Dupere, to take on a cargo of lumber, presumably for Chicago.
Several local newspapers of that era carried the news of the sinking of the schooner Alvin Clark off Chambers Island, as happening on the afternoon of Wednesday, June 29th, 1864. Thus it is definitely established that the Alvin Clark went down in the exact vicinity where Captain Hoffmann brought up his unidentified schooner. It could well be the Alvin Clark!
Another clincher in favor of this point is the comparative size of the two vessels. The salvaged Marinette schooner measures 105 feet 8 inches long, with a beam of 25 feet 4 inches, and a depth of 9 feet 4 inches.
Records indicate that the Alvin Clark was also of these same measurements. She is reported as being built at Trenton, Michigan, on the Detroit River, some sixteen miles below Detroit. She had a single main deck, two masts, and was rigged as a schooner, being square-rigged on her foremast. These details also tally.
She was built in 1846 for and by John Pearson Clark of Detroit and was named for his son. Could it have been possible that the builders simply neglected to have her registered number chiseled into her main beam? Was it forgetfulness? Today the finding of that number would end unequivocally the chief mystery which now hangs over the sturdy old lumber windjammer. Customs regulations in those particular war years were likely to have been a bit lax, and ship inspections on the Lakes likewise. The Alvin Clark may never have been completely checked.
Today, marine men picture the wreck of the Alvin Clark as the result of one of those unusually severe early summer storms that occasionally surge across the Great Lakes and the states bordering them, tearing up everything not permanently fastened down, blowing down huge trees and small buildings, and on the water crashing down upon hapless sailing craft so suddenly that the crews do not have time to take in their sails.
Such, they figure, was the plight of the Alvin Clark. She was without cargo and under full sail and making good time when the storm struck her down. It is believed tremendous gusts of wind slammed against her sails which most likely capsized the vessel, throwing her crew into the water. Three were drowned, but the remaining two men were fortunately rescued.
The ship is reported to have gone under bow first, her stern rising out of the water. She eventually filled completely with the dashing waves, and her keel settled down gradually with the hull nearly upright on the shale and silt bottom of Green Bay, with her centerboard resting in the shale.
It is quite likely that this is the same schooner that now floats easily in the yards of the Marinette Marine Corporation. So many recognized details dovetail, that most mariners accept her as the Alvin Clark.
But, there does exist a small, but well-informed, group of marine historians who refuse to believe without question that she is the Alvin Clark. They point out that during the Civil War era several similar vessels were built in obscure rivers and bays along the Lakes, and some possibly in Canada. These ships were brought into the regular lake shipping trades and sailed for years. This class of windjammer was not registered with the authorities, they point out, and consequently did not have any official number assigned to them. Thus, they would most likely avoid taxation. Could the ship in this story be one of these? Hardly a chance, but who now knows the question?
The thought, however, does add a bit of further confusion to the already complicated tale of mystery of the sturdy old windjammer now salvaged off the bottom and resting quietly in her new berth in the Menominee River. What further surprises await her during her next one hundred years=?
Comments By the Author
This story is a record of faith, hard work, and danger, of a few dedicated hardy scuba or skindivers living along the shores of Green Bay. It covers almost two years of the most strenuous efforts. Optimism and good fellowship, coupled with careful planning, stand out in their everyday actions. Cooperation, with little immediate remuneration, was the key note among the divers. Danger was constant. The completion of such a project in these days is almost incomprehensible — but they did finish their self-assigned task, by each man doing his bit when his turn came.
I met and talked with many of these divers — just regular fellows. The schooner they would like to believe is the Alvin Clark is presently enclosed in a plastic-covered temporary building in the yards of the Marinette Marine Corporation, in Marinette, Wisconsin, and is floating. Mr. J. R. Derusha, the vice president of this company, made the arrangements for me to meet Captain Frank Hoffmann and his diver friends and to go aboard the Alvin Clark.
I was escorted into the plastic-coated frame building, and into a heavy fog of live steam and dripping moisture as I stepped aboard the now famous vessel. She appears as sound as when new. We went all over the ship, into the captain’s cabin, crew’s quarters, galley, bunkhouse forward, anchor housing — everywhere.
Recognized experts from the lumber industry are directing the work of preserving the wood from which the schooner is built. Bringing her up and into the atmosphere after being submerged for so long a time does something to wood if it should dry too fast and not be cared for properly. The divers are at work now preserving and caring for their ship so that she may even again sail the Great Lakes, or perhaps find a quiet cove in some lake port where she might serve as a full-rigged floating schooner museum. She deserves the best! She would most certainly attract thousands of people from far and wide.
And now to bring my story right up-to-date, I would like to quote from a letter which I received quite recently from Captain Frank Hoffmann. He writes as follows:
We have started restoration of the schooner, and as I am writing this, the ground is being broken on the shore of Green Bay in the twin city area (Marinette and Menominee), where we will build a dock and an old village (1850 era). Here we will continue to work on the ship and try to build something of past sailing history on our Great Lakes. The thing that stands out most of all is the people involved in this venture. The hardship, risk, and the hours put into it. We did so much with so little. Every step of the way, it was a fight.
In a postscript the captain added, “the only injury we had was Bernie Bloom who slipped on his own soap and broke his collar bone the first day of the lift.”
And that’s the tale of the Mystery Wreck at 19 Fathoms – or the tale of the Alvin Clark – or the tale of the Green Bay Mystery Schooners. So – Good Luck, Captain Frank Hoffmann and your fine crew and your helpful friends — and smooth sailing to your good ship from way out of the past!
The following persons and concerns contributed either time, material, or finances toward the raising of the salvaged mystery schooner of Green Bay: Skindivers Frank Hoffmann, Jeannette Hoffmann, Edward Hoffmann, Lyle (Buzz) Nelson, Vern Carlson, Harry Anderson Jr., Eugene Dubey, Dennis Dubey and Ray Clark of Marinette-Menominee; Mike Burda and Ronald Strege of Egg Harbor, Wisconsin; Bernard Bloom, Bud (Ironman) Brain, Marvin Rawski, Betsy Riley, Gary Means and Jack (Pussycat) Raymond of Chicago, Illinois; Bob Olmsted, Dick Boyd, Sue Boyd, Bob Edelbeck and Dave Ingerseth of Madison, Wisconsin; James Quinn (Director of Neville Public Museum), Dick Siegert and Morrie Dennison of Green Bay, Wisconsin; Dick Bennett, Carl Gruebel, Gail Mullard and Chuck Stanley, underwater photographers of Milwau- kee, Wisconsin.
Individuals from whom we received invaluable assistance include Harold Derusha, Jim Derusha, Bob Derusha and Roger Derusha of Marinette Marine Corporation; and Al Sampson, producer-photographer; Bill Holmes, Dick Armbrust, Harvey Haen and Gallagher Marine Construction Co.
Read More of Inland Seas Online
About the Author: Although Mr. Dana Thomas Bowen needs no introduction to members of the Great Lakes Historical Society or to readers of Great Lakes history, we are publishing here his first contribution to INLAND SEAS as an Assistant Editor. Mr. Bowen, well-known author of the popular books, Lore of the Lakes, Memories of the Lakes, and Shipwrecks of the Lakes, resides in Rocky River, Ohio, and Daytona Beach, Florida. He was one of the earliest Charter Members of our Society, and the very first issue of INLAND SEAS, January 1945, carried an article written by him, entitled “The Old Lake Triplets.”