Tales from the old-timerIssue Date: August 29, 2013
By Jane Thibodeau Martin,
daughter of the Old-Timer
I have very fond memories of the raising of the Alvin Clark wooden ship in 1969. The ship was built in 1847 and lost in a storm in 1864 in Green Bay. In 1967 it was found at the bottom of the bay, and in an extremely improbable feat, raised and brought to the Menominee River by a group of volunteers in 1969. I remember going with my parents to see it arrive under tow, still partially submerged and supported by cables slung under its hull, at the harbor mouth.
The old wooden ship held together for this salvage because the dark, cold fresh water of the bay preserved it for over one hundred years. The wood withstood the immense stress of the lift because it was built well by craftsmen and then salvaged with ingenuity. Most modern comparable salvages cost millions of dollars, but Frank Hoffman and his volunteer team did it on a shoestring.
It was called The Mystery Ship as a master stroke of marketing, but since the loss of a ship in those days was as dramatic as a plane crash is today, the loss was well-documented in newspapers of the time. I remember hearing interviews with Frank, where he expresses the hope of making it a tourist attraction, with money raised going to refit the hull and buy sails with the idea of sailing it from port to port around the Great Lakes. What a beautiful vision, the vision of a dreamer and so clearly evidence of the can-do attitude he had.
At one time it is reported that the seaport home of the ship, a dredged-out slot near the current campground behind the Menominee shopping center, received as many as 50,000 visitors a year. My family always took our out-of-town visitors to see it, and I was fascinated with the tiny berths of the crewmen, the small woodstove they used to cook, and the pot with 100-year old cheese still in it. When I looked at it, I didnt see warping wood, I saw the romance of a wooden sailing ship plying Green Bay, bringing all the necessities of life to isolated communities using the wind that is still free today. I probably toured the ship more a dozen times and never tired of it. You can see pictures of the ship during the salvage and as a tourist attraction on the internet.
Unfortunately, there was nowhere near enough money to adequately preserve such a large (105 feet long) wooden artifact. Such salvaged vessels are preserved now with glycol solutions, undergoing a process that takes years to stabilize the wood. And of course this takes millions of dollars, and only the most critically important or historically significant wrecks are worthy of such expenditures. New laws now forbid the removal of artifacts from shipwrecks both in the Great Lakes and on the seacoasts of the United States. When old wooden vessels are discovered now, they are protected in the very water that preserves them. This is no doubt for the best, but limits the enjoyment of seeing them to divers.
The sad end of the deteriorating vessel was a sale to investors, followed by additional years of neglect. Sometime around 1994, the remains of the rotten vessel were bulldozed to make way for a parking area. I understand some of the artifacts from the ship are on display in Menominee although I am unsure where.
She was only one of thousands of small wooden sailing ships that went about their business on the Great Lakes before the turn of the century. At the same time, one man saw her as interesting, important, and worthy of preservation. It was a sad end to his dream.
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