Tamara Thomsen has a master's degree in genetics, a working background in geology and geophysics and a passion for scuba diving.
She also can tell you more about shipwrecks than just about anyone else in Wisconsin.
Thomsen is in her 12th year with the Wisconsin Historical Society, where she is a maritime archeologist, exploring and cataloguing the underwater remnants of ships.
It was originally a temporary position that she dived into when the two people in the historical society's maritime preservation department left. Thomsen, also the owner of Diversions Scuba on Madison's west side, is now recognized as an expert in shipwreck conservation.
She talked with the Cap Times about marine exploration in Wisconsin.
In a presentation you once gave, you said maritime history is Wisconsin history. What did you mean by that?
You only have to look at our state seal, which is on our flag, and there's a lot of icons which are maritime history icons. You have a sailor. You have an anchor. And then the arm and hammer is a caulking mallet. It was put there for prowess in industry, but that industry was shipbuilding.
Everyone that has an immigration history to Wisconsin has a maritime connection. Either they came here by boat, or the original people settled along our coast. There's not only Lake Michigan but that's many of our riverways, our waterways. Even if they were involved with the lumbering industry, a lot of times they floated the lumber and these big booms down the rivers.
Are people surprised by the number of shipwrecks there are in Lake Michigan or some of the inland lakes?
We do kids programs, and so a lot of the times that's one of the first questions. I ask the group how many shipwrecks they think that we have in Wisconsin. It starts very low, usually. The office that I work in started in 1987, and my predecessors did work and looked at all of the early newspapers, insurance documents, anything they could get their hands on to be able to determine how many losses we have. So according to this database that they produced we have about 750 historic losses in the Wisconsin waters.
But of those — and it's a moving target because people are finding shipwrecks, probably today — we're at 183 now (whose locations) are known. So it's a huge discrepancy in the numbers.
I've heard you say there are more shipwrecks on the National Registry of Historic Places in Wisconsin than any other state. Are there more interesting shipwrecks here or just more people dedicated to getting them on the registry?
I like to think there's more dedicated people and shipwrecks here. We found funding for two positions here. This summer we're fortunate to have an intern for three months. That's more than Minnesota has. Ohio has the same thing that we have here. Illinois doesn't. So that's in part true, the staffing.
But it's also our management plan. To be able to protect the shipwrecks, there's an act that was passed in 1987 called the Abandoned Shipwreck Act, and that gave title to all of the resources on the state bottom lands to the state. So they belong to everybody that's a taxpayer in the state of Wisconsin. And then our job is to catalogue those and to offer them the greatest form of protection that they get. I'm not law enforcement, so we work with DNR for that. The DNR conservation wardens have been very good about stepping up and enforcing the shipwreck laws. Those are state laws. But to give them a federal level of protection, we need to guarantee ownership to the state. And to do that, it's through the National Register.
When you're studying a shipwreck, what kind of research are you doing?
There's a couple different levels to that. When somebody finds a new shipwreck, a rule of thumb is if it's over 50 years old then it would qualify to be looked at for the National Register. Stuff that went down last week isn't going to qualify. So you look for structural integrity: How much of the ship is there? And then you look at the cargo, too. Sometimes they went down with sort of a time capsule of whatever date it was that they sank. And it's not just the cargo that tells you anything. ... It also is the artifacts that the sailors took with them aboard. And some of their items still remain with the shipwreck, and in some cases we recognize that they might have lost their lives, too, with the vessel loss.
So there's these broader pictures that we can get, not just that it's a time capsule and this is a particular ship. But we're doing a lot more because we've looked at so many shipwrecks, and looking at them really with the eye of an architect. So some of these guys were really at their prime when they were constructing ships. In some cases, you go and look at a Frank Lloyd Wright house, and you can see early on in his career he had this type of construction, and then how his understanding of architecture and construction and design changed over time, you can see that in his later work. It's the same thing with these ships.
If someone gets in contact with you and says they've found what looks like a shipwreck and it doesn't match anything that you have ...
That's exciting, isn't it?
... what do you start with to try to determine what it was? It seems a little like "CSI."
It's very much like that. First of all, we go dive on it and take a look at what it is. We try to get some measurements. When you register your car, we get paperwork. When they registered boats, there's enrollment documents. Those live at national archives, so we can go through those and match it up. This database that was created in 1987 is great. It has all the losses, and once they found them in the newspapers they also did additional research and they came up with these enrollment documents to match them.
We just looked at a tug that was found by a charter captain out of Green Bay. He was out with his buddy who has a side scan sonar, really expensive unit. His buddy does mostly lost person searches; he works with police departments. So this is a really high-quality thing, and they were out testing it in Green Bay, south of the Sister Islands, and they had found this wreckage. I said, "How long is it?" Because you can actually do some measurements on the remote sensing equipment on this digital image. He says, "I think it's probably 45 to 65 feet." ... Well, you know what falls in that range is the Griffon. The Griffon is this sort of mythical shipwreck. It was (French explorer Robert de) La Salle's vessel when he came into Green Bay in 1679. He dropped off explorers, picked up furs and headed back for Buffalo. The native population on Washington Island claimed to have seen the vessel but it was not seen again in the straits. Well, this ship is (supposedly) found every year, usually multiple times there's a report of it. So we go out and look at it and it ends up being a tugboat. But that's the holy grail, finding the Griffon. So we spend a lot of time tracking down these fake Griffons every year.
Has anything on a dive creeped you out?
A lot of the ships are final resting places for sailors. A lot of times we do know what we're going to look at. It's not like we're identifying what it is. You have to know that you're going into a place that might have human remains, and you have to be respectful of them, not move them around. It hasn't really creeped me out, but it's one of those things that you have be ready for.
Not here, but I went to a ship maybe 20 years ago called the Empress of Ireland. It was lost the year after Titanic, went down in 1914. It kind of got lost in history because that's the year World War I started and we joined the war. It's in Canada, way out in the bay of St. Lawrence. There were over 1,000 people that lost their lives. I knew about it, but I didn't think I was ready for it. And you go down there and there are skulls everywhere. There are people in lifeboats off the side of the ship. You go into the engine room and there are guys that are left there. It's very sad but that was their way of life. You're there to also honor them and what they did.