When it comes to the world aquatic, Wisconsin is recognized as one of the premiere wreck diving destinations within America’s Midwest: boasting 55 wrecks listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Kept in cold waters, these submerged tableaus offer rare opportunities to experience the state’s rich history: settling in new lands; hauling vital materials to build a nation.
By John Tapley
Preserving these timepieces and unveiling new discoveries is the Wisconsin Underwater Archeological Association (WUAA): an organization, which according to its website, “…provide[s] access to information pertaining to underwater archeology statewide and provide training to perform underwater site surveys.” Since the association’s founding in 1990, it has successfully assisted with 15 projects, including the steamer Niagara in Port Washington, the schooner-barge Adriatic in Sturgeon Bay, and the steamer Francis Hinton in Manitowoc.
We spoke Kevin Cullen, WUAA president and archeologist, about the organization, its purpose, and ongoing and future marine archeology projects.
JT (John Tapley): What is the history of WUAA? Could you explain its origins?
KC (Kevin Cullen): It began [with] one of the founding underwater archaeologists, David Cooper, with the idea to bring the advocational community (specifically divers, shipwreck hunters, fishermen, and people interested in maritime history) together to advocate and help document maritime research in Wisconsin.
[It was] an informal organization and grew and [became] more formalized with mission statements, project charters, and bylaws over the years… meeting to discuss projects and going to survey these shipwrecks. To date, there’s been several dozen wrecks across Wisconsin waters from Lake Michigan to Lake Superior – inland lakes and even rivers – that WUAA members have been participating in.
JT: What is the importance of marine archeology in the state of Wisconsin and how does WUAA mesh with this interest?
KC: It’s a vital, historic industry [in] a state surrounded by water… all of those resources have contributed to the growth of our state. Early inland waterways (like the Green Bay and Fox River) are important historic arteries for trade and communication going back to the fur trade: and even earlier with the indigenous cultures that lived here and used the water system as transportation.
Over the course of a millennium, humans have used the water system here. Going back to even pre-European context, you get to realize these were highways and byways of communications; and also settlements: we find prehistoric artifacts and archaeological sites throughout the state: all the way to the advent of commercial shipping.
It’s our job, in the realm of WUAA, to make these sites understood, accessible, and to the point of documenting them and recommending their preservation if we can to state agencies that oversee them: the Wisconsin Historical Society and the Department of Natural Resources. There’s so much water to cover and so few of us divers… the more we advocate for that and bring younger divers into what they can contribute to this research, the better our state will be: a gem and a pioneer. As an organization, WUAA assists and bring in divers from the broader statewide community to help access, preserve, and record these sites.
JT: What are some events and programs WUAA has organized or participated in to meet these goals?
KC: Our mission is to preserve and promote Wisconsin’s underwater archaeology, and by doing that, we do educational trainings and practical hands-on… how to do underwater archaeology. We’re affiliated with an international training agency called the NAS (Nautical Archeological Society) out of the UK. As a result, it’s an international training apparatus where WUAA as a partner in the Great Lakes trains people who are interested in maritime history in a standard that’s internationally recognized.
In July we held one of those training sessions at a scuba shop in Appleton, Wisconsin. We had divers come and learn how to map to scale, learn about basic 101 “What is Underwater Archeology”, and they get certification and introduction into coastal and underwater archeology. That enables them to go on and continue: like building a CV or resume in the field.
That was followed by our third field school where we worked with the Wisconsin Historical Society with a grant received from Wisconsin Coastal Management. It allows eight divers to attend a 10-day field school: we have a house reserved (a base camp) and a shipwreck site [The Advance] we are mapping to scale for evaluation on a national listing. The divers were trained on practical underwater archeological techniques and they worked in mapping the wreck to scale to create a master site plan. Our intention is to continue to do it, and because of the grant it’s free for divers to come and participate: they just need to bring their own gear and take the time to do it. Students get that hands-on practical experience, and they’ve gone on to work on other shipwrecks with us and the state to continue the momentum of documenting hundreds of shipwreck sites around the state.
JT: Is WUAA involved in any community outreach or educational programs – say presentations for high school students?
KC: We have upon request whether its Kiwanis Club members or various dive clubs around the state who are looking for speakers. I’m a professional archeologist in the museum world and it dovetails well when talking about maritime history with schools or public lectures at archeological societies. Often we’re at festivals like the Ghost Ships Festival in Milwaukee or the conferences around the Great Lakes: explaining what we do as a non-profit; advocated for maritime history in the state.
JT: Is WUAA hosting any upcoming events?
KC: We also have our annual symposium, which is a one-day conference that’s coming up on October 20. It’s the 14th year we’ve held the symposium: we bring in guest speakers and discuss work we’ve done throughout the state. [Guest speakers] talk about [subjects like] lighthouses around the Great Lakes; others about advanced sensor technology like ROVs and ship surveys. It gives you a relevant snapshot of what’s happening in the state now regarding maritime history on land and below the waters.
JT: Thank you, Kevin. Are there any final thoughts you’d like to share with our readers?
KC: If you’re a scuba diver and haven’t been in Wisconsin waters, it’s certainly well worth the visit. The secret’s getting out there. If you’re planning a dive visit, there’s a great website called wisconsinshipwrecks.org where you can search by region – in conjunction with the Wisconsin Historical Society.
With the state buoying these wrecks, the whole idea is to make them accessible and recognize their important as elements of our economy throughout time and how they contributed to building the nation as we know it.
For more details on WUAA, including volunteer information, ongoing and archived projects, future events, and more, visit www.wuaa.org.