Christina Nilsson (1871)
Mapping the Nilsson.
Documenting one of the Nilsson's mast steps
Piping used to carry water out of the Nilsson's bilge
A fragment of the Nisson's centerboard.
A section of the Nilsson's overturned hull.
Turn of the Nilsson's bilge.
Christina Nilsson archaeological site plan
By The Numbers
Lives Lost
Depth (ft)
Service History

The history of the Christina Nilsson (U.S. Registry 125293) begins in winter of 1871, when the Manitowoc, Wis., shipyard of Hanson & Scove laid the keel for the new three-masted schooner. Built for Swedish immigrant Charles M. Lindgren of Chicago, who named his new vessel after a world-renowned Swedish diva, the Nilsson measured 139 feet in length, 26 feet in beam and 11 feet in depth of hold. With planking completed in June, the Christina Nilsson's masts were stepped the following month, and the new vessel slid down the ways on August 3, 1871. So great was Charles Lindgren's enthusiasm for what local newspapers deemed "a splendid craft," that an inspired Hanson and Scove laid the keel for an identical craft the same day the Nilsson was launched.

Built at a cost of $23,000, the Nilsson was completed during the first year of the Hanson & Scove partnership (1871), though Jasper Hanson appears to have already been building ships for at least four years. Notably, between 1860 and 1880, Manitowoc shipbuilders had gained a reputation around the Great Lakes for their clipper-built ships used as grain, lumber and merchandise carriers. Hanson and Scove operated a relatively busy shipyard and were responsible for 16 (39%) of the 43 total sailing craft constructed in Manitowoc between 1871 and 1885

The Nilsson's maiden voyage commenced on August 7, 1871. Destined for the grain and iron bulk cargo trades, the vessel was first enrolled in Chicago on August 16, 1871, with John Hanson as master.

The Nilsson plied the eastern Great Lakes without serious misfortune for two years. In the fall of 1873, however, while enroute from Chicago to Sarnia, Ontario, she encountered a gale off Point Betsy, Mich., due east of Sturgeon Bay. The storm blew off two jibs, causing her to run to Manitowoc for repairs. With winter approaching, it was questionable whether the Nilsson could be repaired in time to continue her voyage. However, the needed repairs were made in a few days, and Captain Hanson decided to continue the voyage to Sarnia. After departing Manitowoc, the Nilsson "went missing" for two weeks, causing considerable anxiety. The next news heard of her was that she was safely moored for the winter at Cheboygan, Mich., in the Straits of Mackinac.

On August 7, 1880, title was transferred to Lindgren's wife, Johanna, at Chicago. By this time the Nilsson also had a new master, N.A. Hammer of Evanston, Ill. While wintering at Manitowoc in 1881-82, Hanson and Scove installed new keelsons and performed much needed maintenance, restoring her BLU insurance rating to A-2 from B-1, where it had slipped due to her aging and sailing wear.

The "trader" classification remained unchanged throughout the vessel's entire career, placing the Nilsson in the same category as thousands of other Great Lakes schooners that proved essential to the economic development of the Great Lakes region.
Final Voyage

The final days at sea for the Christina Nilsson, N. A. Hammer master, began on Thursday, October 23, 1884, when she cleared Escanaba, carrying 575 tons of pig iron and bound for Chicago. Like thousands of other Great Lakes vessels, the Nilsson fell victim to overwhelming natural forces.

Sailing the Great Lakes has long been considered as hazardous as sailing the ocean--or even more so. The ever-present nearby shores leave little room to "run" before a storm. Waves tend to be be closer together, making them steeper on the lakes than on the ocean. And storms on the lake are renowned for their seemingly instantaneous development.

Having crossed Green Bay and successfully navigated Death's Door, a notoriously dangerous passage at the tip of Door County, the Nilsson turned south and headed for Chicago, while sailing just off the Door County Peninsula's eastern shore. By the time she passed the Sturgeon Bay ship canal, the weather had deteriorated into a blinding snowstorm with gale -force winds and high seas. Unable to enter the canal due to the storm, Captain Hammer decided to turn north and run before the storm. His intention was to retrace his course 20 miles back up the Door County coastline to the protective shelter of Baileys Harbor. Preparing for a desperate run to safety, Captain Hammer ordered all sails single reefed (partially lowered to prevent storm damage) and turned the Nilsson north.

As the schooner fought her way toward relative safety, the force of the gale and the blinding blizzard caused the Nilsson's course to be too far to the west and dangerously close to the east shore of Baileys Harbor. Finally discerning his vessel's perilous position, Captain Hammer attempted to sail eastward to avoid the Outer Reef at Baileys Harbor and gain adequate "sea room" to maneuver. His effort failed, however, and at 8:30 a.m. on 24 October 1884, the Christina Nilsson struck hard upon Outer Reef and began to founder.

The anchor was quickly dropped, causing the vessel's stern to swing around and strike hard on the reef a second time. The Nilsson sank immediately in 15 feet of water. Due to the relatively shallow depth, the vessel was literally pounded to pieces. Without any possessions and with no assistance from shore (the Baileys Harbor life-saving station would not be built for another 13 years), all eight crew abandoned the stricken vessel and made their way in the Nilsson's yawl-boat to a small island where they obtained refuge. No lives were lost.

A salvage crew from Sturgeon Bay, directed by Captain Williams, initially attempted to refloat the vessel. Divers patched up the Christina Nilsson's bottom, and steam-driven pumps were used to siphon water from the vessel's hold in an attempt to make her buoyant again. However, the salvors' confidence proved misplaced when four steam pumps, working in unison for four hours, lowered the water in the hold only a few inches.

Focusing solely on the cargo proved more fruitful. By November 20, 250 tons of pig iron had been raised and placed on the Chipman & Roesser's Pier in Baileys Harbor for spring shipment. The plan was to raise another 100 tons of pig iron, buoy the Nilsson up with cedar logs and have the tug John Gregory pull the schooner off and take her to Chicago. However, unfavorable weather thwarted these plans through early December, when the salvors concluded the Nilsson's bottom was beyond repair, and operations were suspended for the winter. Ultimately, plans to refloat the Nilsson were abandoned, and the vessel was declared a total loss.

The wrecked schooner continued to deteriorate in the shallow, dynamic environment of the reef. On January 15, 1885, a severe storm, compounded by ice accumulation, toppled her mizzenmast, indicating the Nilsson was breaking up, although she lay submerged. The vessel's stern, deck and aft cabin had apparently been crushed by ice, leaving nothing but the keelson, which was insufficient to hold the top weight of the mast and standing rigging.

By January 29th, the mainmast had been carried away, leaving only the foremast and bowsprit above water. The schooner's deck load of pig iron finally came to rest on the lake bottom. The foremast remained standing until March 5, 1885, when the retreating ice dislodged and carried it away.

Divers eventually salvaged the remaining cargo during June and July of 1885. The schooner's remaining rigging was salvaged and brought to Chicago on July 5, 1885 by the schooner A. Ford, thus ending contemporary interest in the Christina Nilsson.

Located one-tenth of a mile east-southeast of the Baileys Harbor lighthouse, the Christina Nilsson's bilge section sits upright on the cobble and bedrock lake bottom in approximately 15 feet of water. This 26-foot by 121-foot section consists of the vessel's lower frames, outer and inner hull planking, centerboard slot, keelson assembly, an intact mast step (a fitting where the bottom of the mast was joined to the keelson), and remnants of two pump shafts (piping used to carry water out of the bilge).

The bilge is a flat, nearly level wooden surface, planked longitudinally in white oak, and fastened with iron spikes. Each ceiling plank is fastened to the underlying frames with four rosette-headed, square-shank iron spikes. The diagonally broken centerboard lies amidships on the bilge wreckage. Notably, this large section, essentially the entire bottom of the vessel, is located at the schooner's point of impact with the limestone reef.

The second feature of the site, a 100-foot by 20-foot fragment of the Nilsson's side, rests in 12 feet of water, roughly 2,000 feet southeast of the main wreckage. This sizable piece consists of 55 sets of frame timbers and long, intact spans of inner and outer hull planking. Most frames are paired together with 1-inch diameter iron fasteners, the heads of which were peened (flattened out) over a large washer to prevent the fastener from slipping through the wood.

Interestingly, several frame sets near the aft portion of the centerboard trunk are tripled, suggesting the need for additional strength in that area. Aside from a few of these loose fasteners, no artifacts were found on the site, save a single iron pig (small block of iron). This was illegally removed from the site some time after 1997.

An interesting by-product of the Nilsson archaeological survey, carried out by the WHS and Wisconsin Underwater Archaeology Association in 1998, was the opportunity to examine the process by which zebra mussels colonize a Great Lakes shipwreck site. Metal fittings were heavily encrusted with the organisms; the ship's wooden structure less heavily. The mussels have strongly adhered in these areas and could only be removed with careful scraping.

The mussels apparently favor the wreck's many curved and angular surfaces, including the edges of timbers and planks, perhaps because they offer a greater surface area for colonization than flat surfaces. Patches of mussels cover the more open sections of wooden hull structure.

Preserving the Christina Nilsson
Because of its historical and archaeological significance, the Christina Nilsson was nominated to the National Register of Historic Places in 2003. The two separated sections of the Nilsson are structurally intact and well preserved, providing a unique glimpse into the design, construction, and workmanship of post-Civil War Great Lakes schooners. Built in 1871, the vessel represents the apex of Great Lakes schooner construction and demonstrates what skilled Wisconsin shipwrights could create from bountiful local timber. Few construction plans for Great Lakes schooners built prior to 1880 have survived, making the Nilsson an important a source of archaeological data as well as a tangible icon of nineteenth-century waterborne trade on the Great Lakes.

Title to Wisconsin's historic shipwrecks is held in public trust by the state of Wisconsin for the benefit of all--both divers and non-divers. Consequently, the general public should be able to share equally in the discovery, exploration, and appreciation of Wisconsin's historic shipwrecks. Archaeologists from the WHS and the Wisconsin Underwater Archaeology Association (WUAA) have been investigating the Christina Nilsson shipwreck site since its discovery in 1997. Much of the archaeological and historical information generated between 1997 and 2003 is being "repackaged" for outreach and education initiatives. These interpretive materials stress the historic value of the shipwreck and encourage divers to adhere to "zero impact" diving practices.

A dive guide for this vessel is available for purchase.
Please help preserve this invaluable piece of our maritime heritage. If you visit the Christina Nilsson, please take only pictures and leave only bubbles.
Confirmed Location     Unconfirmed location
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