Is it an octopus? asks a 4-year-old boy. No, a shipwreck from 1871.

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It started out as a typical summer outing for Tim Wollak and his 4-year-old daughter, Henley. On a clear morning on August 13, they set out in their 22-foot boat from the eastern shore of Wisconsin. The sky was blue and the waters were flat and calm, perfect conditions for exploring the shallow waters of the bay and searching for walleyes, big-eyed game fish common in Lake Michigan.

But then, about three hours into their excursion, Wollak, a 36-year-old medical device salesman, and Henley, who was two days shy of his fifth birthday, found their lives intersecting with history.

A shipwreck from the Peshtigo fire of 1871 was about to be revealed.

As they moved along the sandbars of Green Island, their boat's sonar generated images of shadows, sand and blurry rock features on the bay floor about 10 feet below them. Then a group of long, thin objects came into view, forming a pattern too regular to have been formed by erosion or waves. Mr. Wollak turned to his crew.

“I immediately said, 'Henley, come here and look at this.' What do you think it is?'” she said in a recent interview. “She thought it was an octopus.”

The Great Lakes served as a vital commercial center in the 19th century, providing a shipping passage to the East Coast via the Erie Canal. More than 3,000 vessels have been lost on Lake Michigan, said Brendon Baillod, president of the Wisconsin Underwater Archeology Association.

Wollak said he had occasionally come across lost vessels, mostly a strange rowboat, but he had never seen one this big before. He sailed around the site, trying to capture a better view of the ship, which was partially buried. He took a photo of the sonar image and posted it online, marveling at the frame's radiating ribs that his daughter had interpreted as tentacles.

On December 11, Wisconsin historians viewed the images and identified them as likely the wreck of the George L. Newman, a 122-foot-long three-masted wooden ship that sank in 1871.

“The ship was abandoned, covered in sand and largely forgotten, until it was exposed and located by the Wollaks last summer,” the Wisconsin Historical Society said in a statement.

The Wollak family lives in Peshtigo in northeastern Wisconsin, an area that prospered in the 19th century thanks to the logging industry, but also faced fires and smoke due to the industry's practices.

On October 8, 1871, the George L. Newman, carrying lumber, became engulfed in smoke from a shore fire made worse by dry conditions. The Peshtigo Fire ultimately burned 1.2 million acres in the northeastern and upper peninsula of Michigan, killing an estimated 2,000 people, making it one of the deadliest fires in U.S. history. .

The smoke was so thick that a lighthouse keeper kept the light on during the day on Green Island in the bay, but the George L. Newman ran aground on the island's southeastern point, the Wisconsin Historical Society said. The crew was rescued, but the ship was lost.

After the historical society's Maritime Archeology and Preservation Program discovered Mr. Wollak's photographs, it partnered with conservationists from the Department of Natural Resources to investigate the wreck using a remotely operated vehicle and concluded that its location matched with what was known about the ship's destination.

Another survey is planned to confirm its listing on the National Register of Historic Places in spring 2024, the historical society said.

But Baillod said he was confident the George L. Newman had been found. Accidentally discovering sunken ships, or what's left of them, in the lake's clear waters has become easier with Google Earth and sonar, he said.

“People often run over something and think it's an old building or part of a dock and it's actually a historic ship,” he said.

However, there are no octopuses in the Great Lakes.

“I never have been,” he said.



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