Maritime Archaeologist Dives Into History, Exploring Great Lake Shipwrecks

By Zac Schultz | April 25, 2019


Tamara Thomsen is a maritime archaeologist with the Wisconsin Historical Society. She and her team are interested in history sunken in the Great Lakes; shipwrecks resting on the bottom, hundreds of feet below the waves. Thomsen says, “It’s more than just a pile of wood on the bottom. We don’t collect. What we do is we collect information. In Wisconsin waters, we have catalogued 752 vessels.”

She tells the story of the I.A. Johnson, a scow schooner that sank in 1890 a few miles off the coast of Sheboygan. “It hit another ship in the middle of the night, broke apart and sank while being towed back to shore. It’s absolutely lovely shipwreck,” says Thomsen.

Thomsen has spent more than 15 years diving for the State Historical Society. She first wanted to dive in high school. She begged her father for scuba diving lessons but the answer was always, “Next year.” She learned to dive in a class offered at the University of Wisconsin. She says she loves being and working underwater.

Thomsen says the history underwater can help the history above water. “If you look at every individual shipwreck, every one is representative of sort of this timeline of commercial use of our waterways. We’re starting to get to a point where we’ve seen enough of the collection of vessels that we have in our museum under the water, that we’re able to start putting the story together,” she says.

Thomsen explains that even on old shipwrecks that she’s seen before, she sees something new every time she goes there. Best of all, she says, “And I still love it every day that I can get out on the water.”


Will Explains Underwater Camera Equipment

Scuba diver and underwater videographer for Wisconsin Public Television, Will Salzmann talks about the camera and lighting equipment he is using to document Tamara Thomsen’s exploration of the I.A. Johnson shipwreck in Lake Michigan.


I. A. Johnson shipwreck video (unedited) shot by Will Salzmann

Zac Schultz

Zac Schultz is a reporter for the “Wisconsin Life” project who thinks three-minute stories and one-line bio descriptions are woefully brief.

Related Links for this Article

Explore Wisconsin's Great Lakes shipwrecks through underwater video and historic photos

Ships sank for just about every reason you can imagine - Read the List

List of the best-known shipwrecks in Wisconsin, each with a citation to a newspaper story describing it

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