Ghost Port Settlements and Shipwrecks in Door County’s Clay Banks
Township, Door County, Wisconsin: A Wisconsin Maritime Study
Wisconsin’s Door County Peninsula harbors over a dozen ghost town sites. Many of these vanished communities were actually small lake ports, associated with the logging industry and related pioneer enterprises that blossomed shortly after the Civil War. The Lake Michigan coastline of Clay Banks, the smallest township in Door County, had four such “ghost port” settlements. Maritime shipping was essential for these hamlets because roads and railways were lacking or ineffective. However, the waters off this township are fringed by numerous rocky shoals, which necessitated the construction of extensive piers to ship the products generated by logging, farming and fishing enterprises. A key interdependency evolved between these sawmill-communities and nautical commerce from their mega-piers. Despite these lengthy docks, many shipwrecks and maritime mishaps occurred on the dangerous reefs, as well as at the piers themselves. As the logging era faded, the sawmills closed, local businesses dwindled away, and the massive docks crumbled into the lake, until each settlement had virtually disappeared, leaving only underwater or underground remnants to tell their stories.
Ten years ago, the Wisconsin Underwater Archeological Association (WUAA) began this study of these extinct hamlets, both above and below water. Archival research recounts both the development and the decay of these lakeside communities, including histories of their vital sawmills and shipping docks. The hardships and complexity of the small sawmill businesses are examined, as are the lives of certain key individuals who championed civic developments and commercial enterprises in these wilderness settlements. Local shipwrecks and other maritime misfortunes are discussed, and several underwater archeological field studies are presented. In telling this story of communal rise and fall, the authors have relayed the information in a manner that hopefully captures the “flavor of those long-gone, pioneer times.”
A Wisconsin Underwater Archeological Association Study
Available October 1st, 2020
The Marine Antiquity of the Month for December is the annual reports of the US Lifesaving Service. These books were produced each year, bound in black cloth, between 1878, when the Service was established and 1915, when it was absorbed into the newly established US Coast Guard. The reports of the US Lifesaving Service are extremely important for researching accidents that occurred around major ports and places where lifesaving stations had been established.
Each annual report contains a few very important sections as well as several sections of fairly un-interesting statistical and instructional information. The main section people reference is that containing the detailed narratives of shipwrecks at the front of every annual report. Detailed narratives were only created for wrecks involving a significant loss of life and represent a small percentage of the actual services rendered in a given year. Still, these narratives are very detailed and often dramatically written to draw attention to the perilous nature of the Life Saving Service’s work.
The marine antiquity for the month of November is John Brandt Mansfield’s venerable two-volume History of the Great Lakes published in 1899 by J.H. Beers, Chicago. This massive two volume set, offered in a gilt-decorated, hand-tooled saddle-leather binding, is arguably the most important Great Lakes maritime antiquity ever produced. It is truly mind-boggling in its scope and detail, particularly considering that it was written before the information age, and indeed, before the modern industrial age.
The aims and purposes of the Wisconsin Underwater Archeological Association since its founding in 1990 is to provide access to information pertaining to underwater archeology statewide and provide training to perform underwater site surveys.
WUAA's semi-annual meetings (spring and fall) are held around the state, and incorporate a training workshop. Past meetings have taken place at the Milwaukee Public Library, Door County Library, UW-Oshkosh Archaeology Lab, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Lottie Cooper Shipwreck Exhibit in Sheboygan, and the Wisconsin Maritime Museum at Manitowoc. Here, WUAA members participated in workshops in underwater archaeological site mapping, historic ship construction methods, use of archives in conducting historical research, artifact dating and identification, and other topics. Workshop participants have an opportunity to visit various research facilities, get behind the scenes tours of facilities and collections, meet and talk with staff, learn about upcoming training and fieldwork opportunities, and just have fun meeting new people!
Classroom and in-water training sessions in underwater site survey techniques have been offered at several locations around the state. Pearl Lake has run a PADI approved Research Diver course with WUAA assistance and support.
WUAA promotes research and education in underwater archeology in Wisconsin and the surrounding Great Lakes.