Divers Make Dangerous First Descent to the Wreck of the Senator

Last weekend, the Wisconsin State Journal reports, divers John Janzen and John Scoles became the first to reach the nearly 500-foot deep shipwreck of the steam freighter Senator, which has been lying on the bottom of Lake Michigan since it sank in 1929.

According to the article, the 121-year-old ship’s “frigid surroundings, coupled with the complete absence of natural light, has made the structure one of Wisconsin’s best-preserved shipwrecks.” At that depth, however, the wreck rests about 300 feet deeper than the recreational limit for scuba divers.

“This (was) so far beyond what recreational divers experience,” Janzen said. “It’s more like going up into space or something.”

In total, the dive took two hours, including a descent just short of 15 minutes into near darkness and 42-degree water, another 15 minutes of exploration time at the wreck site, and the decompression time on the slow return to the surface. Janzen and Scoles only had enough dive time to explore the bow and pilot house.

88 years ago, on a foggy Halloween morning, the Senator was on it’s way to Detroit from Milwaukee loaded with over 200 brand new Wisconsin-built Nash automobiles and a crew of 28. They were about 16 miles off the coast of Port Washington when the ore hauler Marquette suddenly appeared out of the dense fog a few hundred feet away and heading straight for them.

“There was a clanging of bells, a shouting of ‘reverse engines,'” the Rhinelander Daily News reported the next day. “Both boats staged to turn and both turned the wrong way.”

With its whistle shrieking, the Marquette slammed into the side of the Senator and tore its hull open. The ship rolled and began to sink before the crew could even get to the lifeboats. Panicked, they began jumping into the water. Within minutes the Senator had slipped beneath the surface and vanished.

Survivors of the Senator shipwreck
Three survivors of the Senator, William Filbeck, Leonard Bossi and Ralph Ellis

For the Kenosha News Archival Revival column, Diane Giles wrote, “Deck hand William Filbeck and lookout Leonard Bossi jumped overboard immediately after the impact and grabbed something in the fog, which turned out to be the Marquette‘s anchor. They gazed momentarily at the huge jagged hole above them, left from the collision. They crawled in the hole and went aboard, surprising the Marquette officers. Then they helped to pull Ellis aboard before the crippled Marquette limped into Milwaukee.”

A nearby fishing tug came to the rescue when they heard the Marquette‘s whistle through the fog. They cruised through the wreckage and began pulling in the survivors. “As lines were cast out,” the Rhinelander newspaper stated, “the maddened men all reached for them at once, shoving their mates away.”

In the end seven lives were lost, including Captain George Kinch. Kinch’s daughter was nervous because of the recent sinking of two other steamers, the Milwaukee and the Wisconsin. “Don’t worry,” her father told her before he departed on the Senator, “I’ve got the best boat on the lakes.”

Shipwreck hunter Paul Ehorn discovered the location of the Senator in 2013, documenting it with sonar and ROV.

“The SS Senator lies in nearly 500 feet of water 16 miles northeast of Port Washington,” the listing on the Wisconsin Shipwrecks website says. “She is setting upright facing in a northeast direction. The pilot house and engineering spaces are intact. Today the cargo on Nash automobiles remains with the vessel. Cars that were attached to deck have slid aft onto the sand, those that remain inside the vessel’s hull remain chained in place. This grouping is considered the largest unmodified collection of early Wisconsin-built automobiles known to exist.”

The Senator is seen here with a deck full of cars

Janzen and Scoles plan to return soon for another dive.

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