Photo credits: Wisconsin Historical Society
In June 2020, members of PBS Wisconsin’s production team and the Wisconsin Historical Society’s Maritime Archeology department set out on the blustery waters of Door County’s infamous Death’s Door. Headed toward Washington Island, their intended destination was not the island itself but below the surface of the water. They were there to document two shipwrecks at the bottom of one of Lake Michigan’s most treacherous passageways.
“As a marine archaeologist, having these physical artifacts, having the shipwrecks themselves, is a valuable, powerful thing,” says Cathy Green, executive director of the Wisconsin Maritime Museum. “They really are like museums on the bottom of the lake.”
Coming this December, Shipwrecks! is a comprehensive project – including a 60-minute documentary, a fully-interactive educational game for K-12 students, and a state-of-the-art virtual reality experience – taking viewers to the depths of the Great Lakes. Explorers of every age will have the opportunity to immerse themselves in the complex and eerie history of the more than 700 shipwrecks resting off the shores of Wisconsin, the communities rooted in the maritime world, and the “wreck hunters” searching for shipwrecks today.
Shipwrecks! has faced many pandemic-related delays, but Producer David Hestad was steadfast in his enthusiasm for the program. “Shipwrecks teach us so much about Wisconsin history. Not only are they monuments to specific moments when ships went down, but they also provide insight into how many of our state’s communities formed,” he says.
The project was rooted in a legacy of past partnerships with the Wisconsin Historical Society, which was what drew Elizabeth Parker to support the project. “I know PBS Wisconsin for its excellent documentaries, so I’m really looking forward to the premiere,” Elizabeth says. She made a gift to the project in honor of her late father, George S. Parker II, who was a Janesville businessman with a passion for geography and cartography. He was also the author of The Mapping of the Great Lakes, published in 1989, and his personal map collection is held by the Wisconsin Historical Society today.
“When my father passed away and established a trust, education and history were extremely important to him – and to me as well. He had a passion for archeology, and shipwrecks in many ways are archeology,” Elizabeth says. “I think he would be excited about this project, and I am thrilled to be a part of it.”
Viewers can tune in to PBS Wisconsin this December for the premiere of Shipwrecks!, which is supported by a $50,000 grant from the David L. & Rita E. Nelson Family Fund within the Community Foundation, along with several other grants and donations from across the state.
Who were the Nelsons? Learn more about the David L. and Rita E. Nelson Family Fund and find out more about this couple here.