The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.
By Steve Radovan
In 1866, the schooner Walter B. Allen was built by N.C. Pearsons of Ogdensburg, New York, for Elijah B. Allen and Walter B. Allen. She was 136.8 by 26.2 by 11.1 feet; and of 296.15 gross tons. Her official number was 26561. She had two masts and her first master was Timothy Larkin. She remained in the possession of the Allens until March of 1871, when Elijah Allen died and Walter became her sole owner. He sold her soon after to John M. Long and William Long of Chicago and William then became her master until the day of her demise.
On April 12th, 1880, the Allen was bound from Chicago, Illinois, to Buffalo, New York, with 19,000 bushels of corn. When off the Manitou Islands, in Lake Michigan, she was hit by a northern gale. She lost her mainsail and tried to make shelter in South Manitou harbor, but lost her large anchor and was driven ashore.
The tug Caroline Williams was dispatched from Manistee, Michigan, to go to the Allen’s assistance. After placing a steam bilge pump on the Allen, and pumping six feet of water out of her hold, the tug Williams pulled her free, and began to tow her back to Chicago for repairs. The bilge pump had to be kept running to keep the water from gaining on the Allen.
On April 16th, the tug Caroline Williams, with her consort the Allen, were off Manitowoc, Wisconsin. About 8 o’clock in the morning, they were hit by a fierce northeast gale, accompanied by heavy snows. The tug, taking water over her rails, was riding well, but the heavy seas breaking over the Allen threatened to put the fires out in her steam pump. At about 10:00 A.M. the heavy seas did put the fires out, and the schooner started settling.
The captain of the tug, realizing that the Allen would not stay afloat much longer, proceeded to take her crew off. He made five passes at the sinking schooner – the crewmen leaping from the deck of the Allen to the tug. Luckily there were no casualties. Twenty minutes after the last crewman was taken aboard the tug, the Allen made her final plunge. In the blinding snowstorm the men were not sure exactly where they were, but estimated themselves to be somewhere between Manitowoc and Sheboygan. The tug proceeded on to Milwaukee with the rescued crew. The Walter B. Allen has been lying there in her watery grave all these years, waiting for someone to look on her again. On a cool spring morning, May 9th, 1975, the sonar equipped vessel Challenge made her way out of Sheboygan harbor. At her helm, wreck hunter Kent Bellrichard was about to make a rendezvous with the 109-year-old schooner. The sonar screen picked up two targets that morning, both north of Sheboygan, in approximately 180 feet of water. The first turned out to be the burned-out hulk of the schooner Helvitia, which lived out her usefulness and was intentionally sunk, September 10, 1921. The second target was thought to be that of the dredge Algoma, which went down November 18, 1919, in heavy seas in the same area. A buoy was thrown over and left for another day. Two days later, on May 11, a diver went down, and to his surprise, instead of finding a dredge on the other end of the line, there was a two-masted schooner resting, with a slight list to port. The Walter B. Allen had been found!
Kent, an accomplished photographer, and fellow film maker John Steele, set out that spring to photograph his latest find. Many hours were spent under adverse conditions to get enough good footage to properly document this vessel. It was a cool September morning when we left Sheboygan Harbor and headed for the wreck site. After about a half-hour run, we tied up the buoy marking the Allen.
Donning scuba gear, as one starts descending into the cold green waters of Lake Michigan and swimming down the descending line, you pass through a thermal layer at about twenty feet where the warm surface water, (about 60 degrees) turns noticeably colder. As you descend, the sunlight from the surface starts filtering out, and it becomes darker and darker. At about 85 feet, you pass through another thermal layer which plunges the temperature down to a bone- chilling 38 degrees, but you don’t even notice the cold because there, out of the blackness below, at 90 feet, a shaft of wood is beckoning. You reach it and stop a moment – trying to encircle it with your arms – just barely succeeding. You are now on the foremast of the Walter B. Allen.
You stare down into the inky blackness and wonder what’s awaiting you, so you turn on your light and start on down. You have now reached a depth where there is no more available sunlight, just an ominous darkness closing in on you from all sides. You can sense the wreck is just below you before you actually see it – then all of a sudden it is just there! You are now on the deck of the Allen, the surface is 170 feet above!
You start swimming aft across her deck passing over her main hatchway, past the steam pump, which failed her that spring day and sent her to the bottom, still chained to her deck. In the field of vision your light allows, you see the tools for running a sailing vessel. Blocks and deadeyes abound as you pass the raised cabin and helm to come to the stern. You peer over the side, expecting to find the vessel’s nameboard, but can only see five gold stars across the stern. You swim over the stern to the lake floor, and to the yawl partially wedged under the ship.
A chill creeps over you as the numbing cold starts to overcome the excitement you are feeling. You look at your watch, which tells you, you have been down five minutes already – time to head back. You swim up onto the deck, past the cabin, past the mainmast and steam pump to the foremast and your descending line. You start up the mast, the cold water now chilling your whole body.
When you reach the top of the mast and start up the line, you pass through a thermal layer and almost feel you’ve been reprieved! As you ascend, the water around you becomes brighter and brighter as you pick up more light from the surface. At twenty feet – after the bone-chilling cold of the bottom – you feel like you are swimming in bath water. At ten feet, you stop for a minute or two to get rid of any excess nitrogen bubbles you may have in your system. Then you break the surface, swim to the ladder on the boat, and as you make your exit from the water, you smile and say to yourself, “The Walter B. Allen sails again!”
About the Author: Mr. Steve Radovan professes to a great love for the Great Lakes, both above and below the surface. He is a member of the Great Lakes Historical Society, and a past president of the Lake Star Dive Club of Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Through his association with experienced divers Kent Bellrichard, John Steele, and others, he has become interested in this activity as a means of preserving our Great Lakes history and heritage. He feels he has been fortunate in being able to “tag along” on some of the expeditions of these “old hands” engaged in locating and filming shipwrecks in the region of Sheboygan, where he resides. Mr. Radovan is a printer by profession, and hopes to do more writing on the future concerning lost vessels that have been located in his area.