A Father And Daughter Just Discovered A 152-Year-Old Shipwreck While Fishing In Green Bay

Published December 21, 2023

The wreckage may have once been the George L. Newman, which sank during the Great Peshtigo Fire of 1871.

Tim And Henley Wollak

Tim WollakTim Wollak and his six-year-old daughter Henley.

Six-year-old Henley Wollak always enjoyed fishing with her father Tim, but while fishing on Lake Michigan over the summer, the father-daughter duo found something much more exciting than fish: the remains of a ship, one that may have sunk during a massive fire over 150 years ago.

“I was surprised I had never seen it before because it’s in an area where people regularly go,” Tim Wollak told Fox 11 News.

Wollak and his daughter were on the lake near Green Island, when Henley thought she spotted a “Green Bay Octopus” on the sonar. When her father looked to where she was pointing, he realized it was no living creature, but rather the remains of a ship.

Wollak took some photographs and did a bit of research on his own, and he came to believe he was looking at the remains of a vessel known as the Erie L. Hackley. He eventually posted in several Facebook groups, hoping to get any confirmation on his findings, according to a post from the Wisconsin Historical Society.

George L Newman Wreckage

Wisconsin Historical Society / FacebookROV footage of the wreckage of the George L. Newman.

Once the Wisconsin Historical Society got involved, however, they discovered that the ship was not the Erie L. Hackley, but may instead have been the George L. Newman, which sank during the Great Peshtigo Fire in 1871.

“We went back to our database to see if there was anything reported in the area and we didn’t have anything,” said Tamara Thomsen, a maritime archaeologist for the Wisconsin Historical Society. “However, in the database we have information on historic losses and this fits the loss location of the George L. Newman.

Conservation Warden Mike Neal investigated the shipwreck using a remote-operated vehicle (ROV) on Dec. 4, capturing several photographs of the ship’s remains. These photographs confirmed that the ship was three-masted and currently in eight to 10 feet of water. Available data matches it to descriptions of the George L. Newman.

According to the Wisconsin Historical Society, the George L. Newman was built in Black River, Ohio in 1855 by a shipwright named Benjamin Flint. In total, it measured 122 feet long and 26.3 feet in beam, and had an 11-foot depth of hold.

It was a barkentine, a sailing vessel that could be operated with a relatively small crew, and was used to transport lumber. That’s what it was doing on Oct. 8, 1871 — transporting lumber from Little Suamico, Wisconsin — when it ran aground on Green Island as a result of the thick smoke caused by the Great Peshtigo Fire.

The Great Peshtigo Fire that caused the shipwreck was certainly worthy of its name. It began as a brush fire, but it quickly grew to encompass somewhere between 1.2 million and 1.5 million acres. In just about an hour, it burned the city of Peshtigo, Wisconsin to the ground. Sixteen other towns were burned at the same time.

In all, more than 1,200 people died in the fire, making it the deadliest fire in U.S. history. This happened on the same day as the Great Chicago Fire, which is more often remembered by history.

People Fleeing The Peshtigo Fire

Peshtigo Fire Museum / Wikimedia CommonsAn illustration of people fleeing the blaze of the Great Peshtigo Fire.

The smoke on that day was so thick that Green Island lighthouse keeper Samuel Drew kept the light on during the daylight hours. It was Drew who rescued the George L. Newman’s crew. He remained on Green Island with them for a week, salvaging whatever they could from the wrecked ship.

Ultimately, the crew was forced to abandon the ship. Over time, it became covered with sand, and was “largely forgotten” until Tim Wollak and his daughter came across it over the summer.

“I don’t know how we top it,” Tim Wollak said. “I told [Henley] I’m pretty sure there’s no one else in her school that has ever found a shipwreck that nobody had recorded before… I guess we’ll just have to fish more and see if we can find more shipwrecks.”

After learning about the discovery of this long-forgotten ship, read about the 400-year-old shipwreck that was touted as the “discovery of the decade.” Or, read about the time an eight-year-old girl found 100,000-year-old woolly mammoth bones while fishing with her dad.

Austin Harvey
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Austin Harvey has also had work published with Discover Magazine, Giddy, and Lucid covering topics on mental health, sexual health, history, and sociology. He holds a Bachelor's degree from Point Park University.
Maggie Donahue
Maggie Donahue is an assistant editor at All That's Interesting. She has a Master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and a Bachelor's degree in creative writing and film studies from Johns Hopkins University. Before landing at ATI, she covered arts and culture at The A.V. Club and Colorado Public Radio and also wrote for Longreads. She is interested in stories about scientific discoveries, pop culture, the weird corners of history, unexplained phenomena, nature, and the outdoors.
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Cite This Article
Harvey, Austin. "A Father And Daughter Just Discovered A 152-Year-Old Shipwreck While Fishing In Green Bay." AllThatsInteresting.com, December 21, 2023, https://allthatsinteresting.com/george-l-newman-shipwreck. Accessed June 15, 2024.