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From his desk at the State Archaeology Lab in Madison, State Underwater Archaeologist Keith Meverden answers e-mail questions from around the world about Wisconsin's submerged archaeological sites.
"Just look closely at the state flag and you will see how important Wisconsin's maritime history is," Meverden says. "You will see a sailor and an anchor."
Wisconsin has 1,000 miles of Great Lakes shoreline, and exploration, industry, commerce and passenger travel on water have greatly impacted Wisconsin's development.
Since 1987, the Wisconsin Historical Society (WHS) has been studying and protecting the underwater archaeological resources that lie beneath the state's lakes, rivers and Great Lakes' shoreline. With its partners – public institutions, private business and volunteers – WHS has investigated more than 80 sites throughout the state.
These efforts also have resulted in placing 22 Wisconsin shipwrecks on the National Register of Historic Places and are helping define areas for consideration as state maritime trails and national marine sanctuaries. Wisconsin underwater history includes remnants from logging and ice harvesting industries and Wisconsin has records of more than 700 ships that sank in Lake Michigan and Lake Superior.
The Wisconsin Maritime Trails system, an interpretative trail that one can visit above and below the waves, includes lighthouses, docks, shipwrecks and museums. Some shipwrecks are located in shallow waters of Sturgeon Bay and the Apostle Islands, where landlubbers can view them.
Through websites, interpretive signage, public presentations and shipwreck moorings, the Wisconsin Maritime Trails system encourages divers, snorkelers, boaters, maritime enthusiasts and tourists to visit these cultural resources. A collaborative effort between the Wisconsin Historical Society, University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute and Wisconsin Coastal Management Program, the Maritime Trails initiative also seeks to document, preserve and protect the state's submerged archaeological sites.
The trails system is divided into four areas: Lake Superior Trail, Door County/Green Bay Trail, Middle Lake Michigan Trail and the Lower Lake Michigan Trail.
"We are increasing the accessibility of our submerged resources for all of the state residents to enjoy, and maybe inspire further interest in tourism and conservation," says Paul Lothary, an avid diver from Fort Atkinson.
The online searchable Maritime Trails Resource Database and Wisconsin Shipwreck Database are great places to learn more about Wisconsin's shipwrecks.
Shipwrecks are at the heart of the Maritime Trails, Meverden explains. The Maritime Trails program actively works to protect these historic sites. Shipwreck mooring buoys encourage visitation and safe diving, while also protecting sites from anchor damage. The WHS also conducts archaeological surveys on shipwrecks.
Illegal treasure hunting threatens many of our submerged cultural resources.
Title to Wisconsin's historic shipwrecks is held in public trust by the State of Wisconsin. Wisconsin law prohibits unauthorized disturbance or removal of artifacts, cargo, structure or human remains. Report shipwreck looting at (800) TIP-WDNR.
"The Wisconsin Maritime Trails database is very comprehensive," Meverden says, "but it is always expanding as additional research is conducted and discoveries are made."
Natasha Kassulke is the associate editor of Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine.