Digging for history

PORTER COUNTY: Shipwreck could link region to underground railroad
2007-03-26T00:00:00Z Digging for historySUSAN O'LEARY
Times Correspondent
March 26, 2007 12:00 am  • 

OGDEN DUNES | A local archeological team thinks it is on the verge of confirming another link between Northwest Indiana and the underground railroad -- this time in the form of a shipwreck.

Members of the Briggs Project Team said Sunday that remnants of a mid-1800s shipwreck off the Ogden Dunes beach might be from a ship used to transport runaway slaves to freedom.

"There's a good possibility you have a big piece of history here in your backyard," Roger Barski told guests of the Ogden Dunes Historical Society during a presentation Sunday on the team's research on the shipwreck.

Barski, who is a member of the team named after Northwest Indiana historian William Briggs, said the group has begun analyzing the shipwreck and has combed through historical records in LaPorte and Porter counties for information about the role the area played in providing fugitive slaves with an exit route to freedom in Canada.

Team members displayed photographs of the shipwreck and pieces of beams and other material that already has been salvaged from the ship. The presentation at the Ogden Dunes Community Church included extensive information about old shipbuilding practices, the role of shipping on the Great Lakes in the 1800s and Northwest Indiana's connection to the underground railroad.

The team, former members of the Underwater Archeological Society of Chicago, began studying the ship, designated the Alpha Wreck, in the summer of 2005.

Barski said the team will excavate the wreck this summer with a state permit. Through excavation and study of the ship's construction, the group hopes to gather enough information to learn the ship's name, the captain, the owner and the reason for the wreck.

Barski said members think the ship was a wooden schooner, a type of ship that was inexpensive to build and operate and was popular on the Great Lakes throughout the 1800s for transporting immigrants and hauling lumber and grain.

So far, the group has found clinch bolts, deck hooks, treenails and square-cut nails, all shipbuilding materials used in the mid- to late 1800s. Individuals also have provided the team with items from the ship, including a shovel handle and a painted wooden figurehead made from red oak.

Peg Schoon, the wife of Ken Schoon, author of the book "Calumet Beginnings," alerted Barski and his fellow archeologists to the Ogden Dunes shipwreck and the historical writings of Briggs.

Barski said Briggs wrote of a wooden ship that transported runaway slaves from the area west of Burns Ditch to freedom in Canada. According to Briggs' story, slavery supporters eventually seized and burned the ship in the area of the current day's wreck.

"Indiana was a free state, and many slaves came through our area," said Ruth Loftus, a Briggs Project Team member. "Many lumbermen and boat captains were anti-slavery. The Devil's Punchbowl, near the mouth of Burns Ditch, is a place where runaway slaves would board."

"The deck beam was located just a few weeks ago," said Barski, who encouraged audience members to assist the effort by providing information they may have or objects found near the site of the wreck.

"The water levels are down now and we were able to see a lot this winter," Barski said. He said team members also have found what they think are the bow stem and apron at the front of the ship.

Barski said a similar ship -- the HMS General Hunter -- has been excavated in Canada at a cost of $3 million.

"It's an expensive proposition," Barski said.

The Briggs Project Team is self-funded, and "we don't have $3 million, so this is going to be a bare-bones operation," he said.

Barski, who describes himself as "obsessed" with the shipwreck, said the team will begin research in Lake County and looks forward to the upcoming excavation.

"We hope, with more research, we can find more information," he said.

"It would be a wonderful piece of history," Loftus said. "But at this time, it's still as much of a mystery as was the underground railroad."

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