Friday, June 22, 2012

Tracking Davidson’s Goliaths: Marine Archaeologists to Survey Wrecks of Australasia, Adriatic in Whitefish Bay

Preliminary dives begin this week on the latest chapter in Wisconsin shipwreck history.

June 20, 2012
By Aaron R. Conklin

At a time when everyone else had switched to iron and steel, James Davidson steadfastly clung to wood, building some of the largest wooden schooners ever to sail the Great Lakes, and becoming a legendary shipbuilding titan in the process.

Beginning this week, Tamara Thomsen and Keith Meverden, a pair of maritime archaeologists with the Wisconsin Historical Society, will dive beneath the waters of Lake Michigan to begin surveying and cataloguing the wrecks of two of Davidson’s most famous ships—the Australasia and the Adriatic. The two-year project is funded in part by the University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute.


And it begins with the Australasia, a wreck that was only discovered a few years ago by jet-skiers in the waters off Whitefish Dunes State Park in Door County.  The ship sank in 1896 after catching fire and burning to the waterline.


“We really believe it’s a time capsule,” said Thomsen, who has been chronicling Davidson wrecks with Meverden for much of the last five years. “Everything that went down with the ships was salvaged over many years, but there’s a lot of components, a lot of really interesting items that were aboard the ship when it sank that still remain on the bottom.”


The 282-foot Australasia is a great example of the evolution of technology and techniques the master shipbuilder used, harnessing truly massive oak beams together with a sturdy metal skeleton. Launched in 1884, it was the fifth Davidson vessel constructed in Wisconsin, capable of carrying 3,000 tons of cargo.


“As his ships got larger and longer, he was actually refining his techniques to allow him to do that,” explained Meverden.  Meverden and Thomsen plan to explore the Australasia both from a cultural standpoint and then from a structural one.  UW Sea Grant videographer John Karl will capture underwater video of the archaeologists at work. 


Preliminary dives begin this Wednesday, June 20. This weekend, weather permitting, several special events will help bring the project into focus for the public.  On June 22-25, from 10 a.m.-2 p.m., residents who own marine radios will be able to listen in on the dive, while others can visit the Whitefish Dunes Amphitheater to view the dive vessel through a spotting scope and get Great Lakes Shipwrecks questions answered by Paul Bentley, a diver who volunteers with WHS.


On Saturday, June 23, Thomsen and Meverden will present “Australasia: Lost and Found” a multimedia look at the current survey work featuring images from the wreck. The show begins at 7:30 pm at the Whitefish Dunes Nature Center Auditorium, 3275 Clark Lake Road in Sturgeon Bay.


In 2013, Meverden and Thomsen will shift their focus to Davidson’s Adriatic, one of the earliest self-unloading schooners ever to sail the Great Lakes. Meverden calls the ship, which was retrofitted with a conveyor belt mechanism and an unloading boom, “one of the grandfathers of modernism.”   The wreck currently abuts the shipyard in Sturgeon Bay, occupying valuable docking space.  Community members are hopeful that survey efforts may shed light on a strategy to move the wreck while preserving its role as a cultural resource.


UW Sea Grant will be providing updates on the dive and survey through the organization’s social media channels.  Look for multimedia updates on the UW Sea Grant Facebook page ( and the UW Sea Grant Twitter feed (@UWiscSeaGrant).