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A Look Back: Tale of the Alvin Clark Tragedy

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The Alvin Clark was sailing empty through Lake Michigan to Oconto, Wisconsin, on June 19, 1864, to pick up a load of lumber. Captain Dunnin ordered the holds cleaned and the hatches removed as the ship approached Green Bay. The ship was capsized by a sudden storm just off the coast of Green Bay’s Chambers Island. Captain Dunnin, the mate, and another sailor died, while two other sailors were saved.

About the Alvin Clark

For nearly two decades, the schooner Alvin Clark sailed the Great Lakes. It was built in 1846 or 1847 and sank during a storm in Green Bay in 1864.

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Alvin Clark was a 105-foot-long (32-meter-long) square-stern lumber schooner with a beam of 25 feet (8 meters) and a displacement of 218 tons. It was made mostly of white oak, with 2+12-inch (63.5 mm) planking and 10-inch (254 mm) wide ribs. The ship had a single deck, two masts, including a mainmast of 110 feet (34 meters), and was rigged as a brigantine with a square foremast.

Alvin Clark
Charles K. Hyde, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Alvin Clark was built in 1846 or 1847 at the Bates and Davis Shipyard in Trenton, Michigan, most likely by shipbuilder John Clark, who had a son named Alvin. Clark, the original owner, used the Alvin Clark to ship salt until 1852, when he sold it. Captain William M. Higgie of Racine, Wisconsin, was the ship’s second owner. The rest of the schooner’s life was spent transporting lumber to Chicago.

Aftermath of the Sinking

In 1967, a commercial fisherman hired sport diver Frank Hoffman to free nets that had become entangled on a “unknown obstruction” beneath the surface of Green Bay. Hoffman dove in and discovered the nets tangled in what appeared to be the mast of a ship. Hoffman initially referred to the wreck as “The Mystery Ship at 19 Fathoms,” but the ship was later identified as the Alvin Clark, thanks to a stencil made below decks by one of the sailors. The ship was completely intact and in excellent condition, and Hoffman obtained salvage rights the following year. He assembled a salvage team that recovered artifacts and removed silt from the wreck.

Work began in the spring of 1968, and the ship was eventually brought to the surface, intact in July 1969. According to historian Theodore Karamanski, the Alvin Clark was the “finest preserved historic vessel in the United States” at the time. It was completely intact, with some mechanical systems still operational and a collection of preserved artifacts. Even after the water was pumped out of the holds, the ship remained afloat. Hoffman berthed the ship in Menominee,(Upper Peninsula of Michigan) cleaning and re-rigging it before easing it into an earthen slip. Hoffman built a museum nearby and displayed the ship as a tourist attraction at Menominee’s “Mystery Ship Seaport” on Sixth Street.

Alvin Clark’s End

Alvin Clark began to deteriorate almost immediately after being freed from the cold, low-oxygen waters at the bay’s bottom. The museum’s earnings did not cover Hoffman’s $300,000 debt, let alone provide restoration funds. The ship eventually deteriorated to the point where it could no longer be restored. In 1985, an inebriated Hoffman attempted to burn what was left of the ship with kerosene, but he was apprehended and sentenced to a week in prison and a year on probation. He sold the ship, now a hulk, to a group of local investors in 1987 for $117,000. The investors relocated and stabilized the ship, but they were unable to adequately protect it.

The ship was eventually determined to be beyond repair and declared a public hazard. The Mystery Ship Seaport and the Alvin Clark were demolished in 1994 to make way for a parking lot.

The ship was designated a Michigan State Historic Site in 1972 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974; Alvin Clark was delisted from the National Register on June 10, 2020.

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About Author

Kathy is the owner of Kirk Scuba Gear, a passionate Scuba Diver, Ocean Advocate and Managing Editor of The Scuba News Canada

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