Lake Michigan shipwreck of 1856 almost claims 2 more lives

By Meg Jones - The Journal Sentinel

When the wooden steamship Niagara sank in Lake Michigan in 1856, scores of people died, their bodies washing ashore near what is now Harrington Beach Park.

The wreck of the ship that carried to Wisconsin thousands of immigrants, mostly Germans and Scandinavians seeking new lives, has gotten a second life as a popular destination for scuba divers.

The Niagara almost claimed two more lives on Sunday.

Two Wisconsin divers who ventured out to the Niagara on the Fourth of July were recuperating in a hospital Monday from hypothermia after strong currents swept them away from the shipwreck and their boat that was moored to the wreck.

Jamie Smallish, 28, and David Rittmann, 29, were reported missing around 7 p.m. Sunday when they failed to return from their diving excursion.

They both were found on shore at about 11:30 p.m. near Amsterdam Beach several miles north of Harrington Beach. The wreck of the Niagara lies in 52 feet of water about one mile off the shore of Harrington Beach.

"There were strong currents under the water pulling in different directions from the bottom current," said Marcus Evans, officer in charge of the U.S. Coast Guard station in Sheboygan on Monday. "When they surfaced, their boat was too far away and the winds were out of the southeast, so they were unable to swim back to the vessel."

Smallish and Rittmann ditched their scuba tanks and weight belts - common in emergencies - and managed to swim to shore. Evans said the divers' scuba tanks washed ashore on Monday.

Winds Sunday afternoon were blowing at 18 knots and waves were 2 feet, according to the marine weather report.

While most scuba divers practice a buddy system and dive with a partner, for safety reasons it's best to have another person in the dive boat keeping an eye on divers in case of emergencies. If divers are blown off course, the boat can simply pick them up.

"Leaving someone on the boat is the best practice and having someone watching your (air) bubbles to see where you're going," Evans said.

Rittmann and Smallish were expected back around 3:30 or 4 p.m., and authorities were alerted around 7 p.m. The Ozaukee County Sheriff's Department sent a dive team to search the wreck but couldn't find the men.

Their boat was empty and still moored to the wreck.

The Coast Guard sent a boat and helicopter, arriving around 9 p.m.


Great Lakes shipwreck steamship

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