A Tale of Two Ships
by Brendon Baillod

An ancient fleet sails the lake bottom off Port Washington, Wisconsin. These forgotten ghost ships lie in the blackness and desolation of Lake Michigan’s depths, their cargoes undelivered, their wooden hulls broken and their sails rotted away. Their silent remains hold untold stories of desperation and heroism from an alien era when civilization did not include automobiles, electric lights or telephones. Forgotten by all but divers and historians, they lie in wait for the day they can tell their stories. Some, like the Niagara, Northerner and Atlanta have given up their secrets and are now playgrounds for sport divers. Others such as the Mahoning, Sophia Bonner, W.G. Buckner and Belle wait silently in the depths. Last December however, Port Washington’s ancient sunken fleet was joined by an unwelcome stranger made of steel and lacking either sail or steam. The fish tug Linda E and her three man crew were called to join their brethren in a most tragic and ironic episode which has summoned a ghost from Lake Michigan’s icy depths.

On December 11, 1998 the commercial fish tug Linda E sailed through a crack in the lake somewhere between Milwaukee and Port Washington. She had been making a routine trip to check her nets and to deliver 1000 pounds of Lake Chubs for smoking at the Smith Brothers Fisheries of Port Washington. She left Milwaukee early that morning under the command of Captain Leif Weborg and headed out to her nets in 300 ft of water southeast of Port Washington. Sometime around 10:00 AM, she radioed Smith Brothers to say she was coming in to deliver her cargo. When she failed to arrive by 5:00 PM, concern was felt and by 8:00 PM a search was underway. Planes, helicopters, boats, teams of beachcombers and even a jet searched for over a week, but not so much as a scrap of debris was found. Captain Weborg, a veteran of over 20 years on the lakes had disappeared along with crewmen Warren Olson and Scott Matta.

The disappearance remains very perplexing because the lake was calm and the visibility was unlimited the day the tug vanished. Further, the tug was equipped with both radio and cellular phone. Officials were at a loss to explain not only the disappearance, but the lack of any kind of radio or phone call for help. Many theories were advanced to explain the loss, including suggestions that the tug may have been struck by a larger vessel and that she may have fouled a line or a net in her prop and torn her stern off. Others suggested that the crew may have been below deck preparing fish and may have run afoul of a big freighter. However, no ships in the area reported anything unusual and no hull damage could be found on any vessels that were in the area that day.

None of the theories about her loss seem realistic when one considers the total absence of debris or wreckage both on the surface and on nearby beaches. Nearly every vessel loss produces some kind of debris field which tells of the accident. The Linda E however, left no tell tale signs as to her fate. Subsequent searches by hundreds of volunteers who combed the beaches came up empty handed. Professional searchers from the Coast Guard and the military failed to locate any debris both from the water and from the air. Given the construction of steel fish tugs, it is almost inconceivable that the Linda E could have foundered outright without leaving debris. Such vessels are internally buoyant and can remain on the surface even when completely waterlogged.

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The Linda E

Built as the Le Clair Brothers (US236906) in 1937 at Manitowoc by the Burger Boat Company, the Linda E was of a time tested design. Burger had built nearly 100 like her and most lasted well into the 70s and 80s. By Great Lakes fish tug standards, the Linda E was a bit old, but certainly no older than many other Burger tugs still on the Lakes. At 39.8 x 13.0 x 5.7 ft., she was a good sized tug with a capacity of 29 gross tons. Although originally built as an oil screw, she had been refitted years ago with a modern diesel and had received excellent maintenance. She had been inspected regularly and had recently passed with flying colors. Every possible avenue of inquiry only served to deepen the mystery. The plight of the crew's family members was further aggravated by the insurance company's inability to pay their claims without the vessel being found.

Given these pressing and perplexing circumstances, local shipwreck hunters volunteered to search for the wreck with sophisticated side looking sonar which prints out a three dimensional "picture" of the bottom up to a mile wide. Captains Jerry Guyer and Roger Chapman of Milwaukee began separately scanning the area off Port Washington in mid January. Only a few days into the search, a ghostly figure appeared on the chart as the searchers probed the 300 ft. depth contour. The object was clearly a small vessel, but her identity could only be speculated. Local media were eager to explain the Linda E disappearance and naively announced that the Linda E had likely been found. Marine historians however, thought otherwise. Although no more dangerous than any other area of the Lake, the Port Washington area is known to hold the bones of at least 20 ships, only a few of which have been found. The likelihood of the target being the Linda E was at best, remote.

Still, the target had to be investigated. Given the visibility and water temperature in January, a technical dive to the site was thought too dangerous and the Coast Guard cutter Acacia was subsequently dispatched to the site with a sophisticated Remote Operated Vehicle (ROV) to investigate the target. On January 20, 1999, after several abortive attempts, the weather cleared long enough to permit the investigation. At 11:00 AM the ROV was slowly lowered into the depths and quickly maneuvered toward the dark shape on the lake bottom. The crowd clustered around the monitors onboard the Acacia squinted to make out the snowy figure coming into view as the shape of an ancient wooden schooner slowly materialized before them. The ROV was brought up at once and the sad news was quickly dispatched. The Coast Guard however, elected to make a second dive an hour later to try and establish the identity of the broken little ship beneath them.

The ROV was again lowered into the darkness at 300 ft. of water. After relocating the schooner, about 20 minutes of video was taken of her starboard, stern and deck area. Unfortunately, no identifying marks could be found. Her stern was bare and as far as could be determined, her entire foresection was missing. The little schooner was in sad shape with her rigging torn from her rails and decks ripped off. Her appearance belied a violent end that had stripped her of any obvious identifying features. Her hold still contained a partial cargo of lumber and one of her masts still reached skyward with wire rigging and a crosstree still in place. On her stern, a small galley stove lay toppled with some cookware lying at its feet. Deadeyes, used to fasten the ship's rigging hung from the rails and remnants of white paint clung in patches to the little ships hull. This ghost of Lake Michigan’s maritime past had begun to tell her own sad tale which may well have included the loss of a crew and the unrequited grief of families and friends so long ago.

The video taken by the ROV tells of a scow schooner with a flat bottom that probably sailed the lakes between the 1870s and 1890s. Vessels like her carried the lumber from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula that built the cities of Milwaukee and Chicago. Her wire rigging suggests that she sailed well after the Civil War era and her size and appearance suggest that she was lost well before 1900. Her stern is somewhat unusual in that it has a very short transom and her deckrails rise unusually high off her deck. She was not of typical construction and seems to have been a fairly unglamorous work vessel.

Giving her a name will be a difficult task. Nearly ten vessels like her were lost in the area, some of which simply went missing without a trace. However, she could be identified through the use of Great Lakes customs house records which recorded the dimensions of nearly every from 1812 onward. Preserved on microfilm, these records are now used to compare historical vessel dimensions to those of newly discovered wrecks. The most effective identification method however, would be to find the vessel’s official number. Official numbers were given to every vessel on the lakes from 1868 onward and stayed with a vessel even if her name changed. These numbers were usually carved into a cross member or cargo hold beam near the vessel’s stern. Another examination of the vessel could locate this number if the deck beams remain intact.

Perhaps identifying this ghost ship and telling her story can serve to give her and her crew a proper burial at sea. And what of the Linda E and her crew? The search will doubtless continue until her remains are located. A number of groups have volunteered to continue hunting for her in hope that the crew’s family can experience some closure to the tragedy. Hopefully closure for the Linda E will come sooner than it did for Port Washington’s mystery schooner.

For extensive information on the Linda E loss and the ongoing search, please visit the Bender's Landing website.

Copyright 1999 by Brendon Baillod and Great Lakes Shipwreck Research.  Thanks to the Bender's Landing website for the Linda E image.