By Meg Jones - Journal Sentinel
At 8:30 p.m. on Oct. 22, 1929, as the S.S. Milwaukee car ferry was caught in a ferocious gale, the ship's purser wrote this note and tucked it into a watertight case: The ship is taking on water fast.
We have turned around and headed for Milwaukee. Pumps are working but the sea gate is bent and won't keep water out. (Crew compartment) is flooded. Seas are tremendous. Things look bad.
By the time the note was found, the ship's purser and the rest of his shipmates were already dead. A few members of the crew - some accounts say 52 died on the S.S. Milwaukee, others say it was 47 - managed to escape the 338-foot-long car ferry before it plunged to the bottom of Lake Michigan, along with its cargo of rail cars carrying bathtubs, automobiles, lumber, barley, canned peas and salt.
Four crew members fled in one of the lifeboats but it wasn't a refuge, only another vessel of death. Their bodies were found in the lifeboat four days after the ferry foundered.
Now a popular wreck for scuba divers, the car ferry sits in 90 to 120 feet of water three miles northeast of Atwater Beach. For non-divers, though, it's hard to picture just what the wreck looks like or its historical significance in a time when railroads often moved rail cars by water to avoid crowded rail yards.
Soon, though, the S.S. Milwaukee will be more accessible, not just to divers but to those who won't need a tank of compressed air to see the shipwreck.
Starting next summer archaeologists will survey and document the S.S. Milwaukee and four other Lake Michigan shipwrecks in Wisconsin waters through a federal grant awarded this month to the Wisconsin Historical Society.
Chosen because they represent a cross section of historically significant vessels, the shipwrecks are near Milwaukee, Manitowoc, Kewaunee and Sturgeon Bay.
"Part of what we were looking for were five shipwrecks that are already popular with people," said Jim Draeger, deputy state historic preservation officer. "They're all ones that are pretty intact and have good archaeological potential."
The $170,000 grant from the Federal Highway Administration Transportation Enhancement program will pay for digital photo mosaics, sketches and measurements, photos, site plans and historic research.
Digital photo mosaics illustrate the wreck as it now looks by piecing together hundreds of photos taken by scuba divers. Divers will measure and sketch the wreck, said Draeger.