By Adam Azzalino

Throughout history the Great Lakes were vital lines for both travel and trade. They were also the site of tragedy that shaped the communities along the lakes. The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum estimates that 6,000 shipwrecks have occurred on the Great Lakes. A new exhibit at the Port Exploreum entitled, “To The Waters: Escaping Fire on the S.S. Atlanta,” aims to tell the story of such a ship that sank off of Port Washington and how it affected the community.

In 1906 the S.S. Atlanta, a steamship from the Goodrich line, was making a routine trip transporting both goods and passengers from Green Bay to Milwaukee and Chicago. The Atlanta stopped at Sheboygan to take on another load of cargo. These items included: pianos, furniture, Vollrath enamelware, and wood packing fiber. A short time later, a shout sprang up. A fire was discovered in the cargo-hold.

“The crew tried to extinguish the flames, but the fire overwhelmed the new firefighting equipment,” said Sarah Smith, Director of the Port Washington Historical Society’s Program in Archaeology and Maritime Heritage. She suggested that the packing fiber among the cargo likely acted as kindling for the flames. The crew and passengers were driven to the upper-decks as the fire threatened to engulf the ship. Just as all seemed lost rescue appeared. A fishing tug named the Tessler owned by the Smith Brothers began an evacuation.

“They [the crew of the Tessler] quickly ran ropes to the Atlanta and encouraged the passengers to slide down to the tug below,” said Smith. All but one of the passengers and crew survived.  A deck-hand named Mike Hickey perished in his attempt to leap to the Tessler from the burning ship.

The new exhibit which outlines the story and showcases some of the artifacts recovered from the wreck such as the remains of a piano or a stack of sauce-pans fused together by the flames. The exhibit is just the beginning of a larger initiative by the Port Washington Historical Society called   the Maritime Heritage Program. Smith initiated the program with the goal to: “… preserve the archaeology of Ozaukee County and draw attention to the unique maritime culture and resources.”

 Indeed, town residents of Port Washington and passersby know that festivals like Fish Days hint at the importance of Lake Michigan to Port Washington’s culture and commerce. Smith hopes that exhibits like “To The Waters: Escaping Fire on the S.S. Atlanta,” under the Maritime Heritage Program will help foster a better historical understanding of how the lake shaped life and livelihood in Port Washington.

“Most of the people living in Port Washington traveled primarily by boat, either for work or leisure,” Smith reflected. “Anytime a sinking occurred, it’s a visceral reminder of the risk involved in lake travel. The story of the sinking and rescue by local commercial fisherman circulated widely in the Port Washington area.  It’s also a strong reminder to current Port Washington residents that the connection to the maritime landscape is ultimately about people, and how they negotiated living on the lakes.”

The exhibit “To The Waters: Escaping Fire on the S.S. Atlanta,” will be on display at the Exploreum for a year. Winter hours are: open Mon, Thurs. - Sunday: 11 am to 4 pm.

"Reprinted from News-Graphic with permission of author Adam Azzalino"

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