The Australasia Shipwreck at Whitefish Dunes State Park

large ship


Manufactured by notable Captain and shipbuilder James Davidson, the SS Australasia was a steam-powered cargo carrier that made the Great Lakes its home in 1884. This monstrous vessel was famous for its unique wooden-hull which allowed it to dominate the steel-hulled ships of its competitors. To add some perspective, the Australasia measured in at an astonishing 285 feet, making it the largest wooden vessel in existence at the time of her creation. She typically carried cargo such as wheat, corn, lumber, and coal and could store approximately 3000 net tons in her cargo hold. At around 6 p.m. on Saturday, October 17th, 1896, the Australasia met her final voyage on the waters of Lake Michigan. The ship caught fire just off the coast of Bailey’s Harbor, WI and was eventually abandoned near the shores Whitefish Dunes State Park after numerous tow lines fell victim to the fury of her flames. 

(Via Wisconsin Shipwrecks)  

Ship Details:

Size Manufacturing Crew
285ft long
When: 1884
Builder: James Davidson
40ft wide
Where: West Bay City, MI
Owner: James Corrigan
22ft hull depth
Captain: James Corrigan
3,000 ton cargo hold
Classification: Wooden Bulk Carrier
Crew Size: 150

(Via National Park Service)


Historical Significance:

The SS Australasia made its mark on history in more ways than James Davidson could have ever anticipated. Upon being commissioned, the ship was the largest wooden-hulled carrier in existence. On her inaugural voyage to Milwaukee, Davidson made a statement for his work by hauling 3,150 tons of salt— the largest cargo ever carried to date by a Great Lakes vessel. The Australasia then went on to break the record for wheat at 74,040 bushels and again at 80,000 under command of her captain, James Corrigan. It was also recently listed on the National Register of Historic Places by the National Park Service in July of 2013. 

(Via National Park Service)


Humorous Ties to Door County:

While on what would soon become her last voyage, the Australasia was carrying a 2,200-ton load of coal from Cleveland to Milwaukee. After passing through the Straits of Mackinaw, the ship abandoned course and headed across the Lake toward the shore of Wisconsin to seek shelter from harsh winds. At around 6 p.m. the crew spotted Bailey’s Harbor just as a fire was starting in the hull. The crew put little effort into extinguishing the fire and abandoned their dinner to head for shore on lifeboats. 

Shortly after this, Captain James Tufts and his crew departed from Sturgeon Bay on their tug, the John Leathem, only to find the Australasia abandoned with a full dinner set in the galley. So instead of immediately fighting the fire or towing the boat, they proceeded to finish the ghost crew’s dinner. Following their stolen-meal, the crew of the John Leathem then proceeded to tow the Australasia toward Sturgeon Bay where they ended up burning through eight different tow lines and abandoning the ship just off the shore of the Dunes.

Once the ship was abandoned for good, the Leathem went back to Jacksonport to collect the crew of the Australasia and bring them to Sturgeon Bay. As it turns out, the drunken crew of the Australasia didn’t take kindly to the idea of their saviors eating their meal, and a fight broke out on the tug. A second fight also occurred once the Leathem reached the wharf in Sturgeon Bay, ultimately forcing the Australasia’s crew to seek refuge on another ship bound for Cleveland without their cargo. An estimated 140 tons of coal washed up on shore in the months following the ship’s final voyage, provoking local farmers to cash in on the fruits of the nearby wreckage.

(Via National Park Service)

The Australasia Today:

shipwreck in Lake Michigan

If you’re curious as to where this maritime marvel resides today, set your GPS for Door County, Wisconsin. The Australasia currently lies at its final resting place approximately 820 feet off of the south shore of Whitefish Dunes State Park. At a depth of about 15 feet below water, the wreckage of the ship is visible to the eye on clear and sunny days. There is currently a buoy marking the location of the stern, which faces toward shore and is pinpointed at the latitude of N 44° 55.301′ and longitude of W 087° 11.225′. If you’re interested in viewing the wreckage for yourself, our Cave and Dunes Kayak Tour offers a unique perspective of the ship few people get the privilege of seeing! 

(Via Wisconsin Shipwrecks & National Park Service)