Underwater Archaeology Dives into UWL

Karley Betzler, Staff Reporter

As an award ceremony for distinguished archaeologists came to a close on November 2, Tamara Thomsen was introduced. Thomsen works for the Wisconsin Historical Society as a Maritime Archaeologist. She has earned awards such as the Great Lakes Maritime History and the Great Lakes Shipwreck Preservation Society for her work. Thomsen has also been inducted into the Women Diver’s Hall of Fame. 

Thomsen began with, “You can’t protect what you don’t understand.” She went on to say that she works on the cataloging and examining of 727 shipwrecks in Wisconsin waters. Although there are hundreds of documented shipwrecks, only 190 have been located. Thanks to new technology available to the public, Thomsen explained, “We see people coming forward with about five to six new shipwrecks per year.”

Due to Wisconsin’s unpredictable seasons, Maritime Archaeologists are only able to dive for a few months of the year. This leads to them being able to catalog three to four sites a year. With such limited time available, they haven’t been able to catalog every known site yet. Thomsen divulged that they have visited about 115 of those 190 shipwrecks.

Thomsen shared stories of various shipwrecks and stated four ways that ships sink: “By fire, by storm, by ice, by collision.” Thomsen went on to explain how important ships and the Great Lakes are to Wisconsin. “We really only need to look at our state seal,” she said, showing the audience a picture of the Wisconsin State Seal. There are various symbols, such as an anchor, an arm and hammer which indicate shipbuilding, and a sailor, that Wisconsinites routinely overlook.

Thomsen explained that they’re trying to catalog everything they see upon arrival at a site. Cataloging everything is important for many reasons, but it’s a big part of being able to know when something is missing. Thomsen says we’re approaching a time period where, “…taking things from shipwrecks isn’t cool.” Thomsen explained that, “These sites, too, are very popular for tourism.” 

Thomsen shared about “…one of the most popular shipwrecks in Wisconsin history,” the story of the “Rouse Simmons”. The ship took its last voyage in 1912 while carrying Christmas trees. They were going to sell the evergreens after arriving in Chicago. The ship sank and all 16 crew members’ and passengers’ lives were lost. For years, no one knew what happened to the ship or where it was located. The shipwreck haunted the area for years as Christmas trees would wash up on the coastlines. 

Another famous shipwreck that Thomsen discussed was the “War Eagle”. In 1870, a steamboat, the “War Eagle”, docked in La Crosse. While unloading, a barrel of lamp oil caught fire. Five people died and many buildings as well as the “War Eagle” were damaged. This shipwreck is well-known throughout the La Crosse region and Thomsen hopes to explore it soon. 

To sum up the evening, UWL student Noah Finco stated, “That was incredibly interesting.” To learn more about shipwrecks in Wisconsin waters, visit http://wisconsinshipwrecks.org/.