Empire State (1862)
Historic image of Empire State in service
Empire State's inner hull
Empire State Archaeological site plan
Empire State's inner hull
Frames and inner hull planking
Starboard side remains of the Empire State
Aerial view of the three Bullhead Point shipwrecks
A Maritime Trails historic marker is on site
Overall site map of the Bullhead Point shipwrecks
By The Numbers
Lives Lost
Depth (ft)
Service History

The Empire State (U.S. Registry #7229) was launched on April 5, 1862, by the Buffalo firm of Mason and Bidwell. Built as a "propeller," a term that distinguished her from contemporary paddle wheeled steamers, the passenger freight steamer carried passengers above decks and freight below. The vessel was reportedly popular, transporting many immigrants and prominent people westward. Her dimensions were 212 feet in length, 33 feet in beam, and 12 feet in depth of hold.

Originally outfitted with a single cylinder steam engine, the Empire State plied the lakes for several years before being selected as a candidate for testing a newly designed, two-cylinder power plant. In 1867 and 1868, Horatio Perry and John Lay used the Empire State to demonstrate the efficiency of a new steam engine design they had recently patented, an engine in which "the saving of fuel was the only point sought to be obtained." The results revealed that the compound engine consumed 21 percent less fuel than its single-cylinder predecessor. This represented a savings so substantial that four steamers were reportedly to be fitted out with the compound engines in time for the coming season.

On June 27, 1900, the Empire State's most significant navigational accident occurred when the vessel ran aground in a thick fog near Sugar Creek, south of Little Sturgeon Bay. Carrying oats from Green Bay and 13 passengers for the Lackawanna, Green Bay & Western Line, the ship fetched up on the east shore of Green Bay while attempting to make Menominee on the west side of the bay. It took the tugs George Nelson, Sydney T. Smith, Gladys Nau, and Torrent three days to free the vessel. During that time, local farmers constructed makeshift rafts and salvaged the 5,000 to 8,000 pounds of oats jettisoned to lighten the vessel.

In 1901, the Door County Advocate reported that the Barry Brothers Transportation Company had purchased the Empire State and sister ship Badger State from Cleveland 's Northern Transit Company for $75,000. In the opinion of "well-posted local marine men," however, the sum was more likely $30,000. After extensive overhauling in Manitowoc, the steamers were put into service between Milwaukee and Chicago, though the Barry brothers briefly considered the route between Detroit and Cleveland. That the Barry brothers contemplated the Detroit to Cleveland route at all reveals an especially ambitious inclination, for that coveted route had been monopolized by the Detroit and Cleveland Navigation Company for a third of a century. Undaunted, Captain Thomas Barry piped, "you see, we are no school boys when it comes to fighting in the vessel business, we are not going there to sell out, but to stay."

In the spring of 1902, the Empire State and Badger State made their first appearance in Sturgeon Bay. The ships plied regular routes on Lake Michigan, with occasional breaks in their routine. The Empire State transported the Morris and Berger Carnival to Sturgeon Bay, collecting passengers from various ports on the bay to visit the show. On another occasion, she found herself imprisoned in ice for an entire week, with 25 passengers on board. Although two impatient travelers eventually walked ashore, the remainder stayed on board and idled their time "by reading, playing cards, and telling stories." Both vessels were apparently well maintained. After 42 years of service for various lines, the steamers still carried an A2 insurance rating.

The Empire State's active career as a steamer ended at the Barry Dock in Chicago on Christmas Day in 1906, when fire so damaged the ship that repair was not economically viable. Initial reports indicated that the steamer had burned to the waterline and was a total loss. Subsequent reports, however, estimated the loss to be between $300 and $1,000, with most of the damage confined to the engine room. It was probably the combination of the steamer's advanced age and the recent fire that motivated the Barry Brothers Transportation Company to sell. Once "the finest craft on the lakes," the Empire State would soon adopt a less glamorous role; by the spring of 1908 the vessel was being prepared at Sturgeon Bay for hauling stone.

By 1910, the Sturgeon Bay Stone Company had purchased the former steamer for $2,500. Initially, the barge Empire State was towed often by the tug Erma Wheeler. However, for the remainder of her career she could be seen towed behind the steam barge I. N. Foster. Though the hull had a high length-to-beam ratio, an undesirable attribute for a stone barge, it was deemed worthy of carrying large rock that was unlikely to shift in heavy sea conditions. This service probably took a considerable toll on the former steamer, for by 1912 the barge had settled to the bottom near the wharf at Bullhead Point. The vessel would be pumped, repaired, and placed into service one more time before being intentionally scuttled and filled with rock in 1916 to extend the end of the Sturgeon Bay Stone Company's wharf.
Final Voyage

By 1928 the Ida Corning, Oak Leaf, and Empire State were abandoned at the Sturgeon Bay Stone Company's Bullhead Point wharf. The 1929 stock market crash and subsequent depression ensured that the vessels would never again carry a load of stone. Their collective value was placed at $7,000 before final abandonment.

It is unclear exactly when the Ida Corning and Oak Leaf were taken out of service, though the Oak Leaf's near-shore position suggests she was laid up first. The Door County Advocate, a local newspaper that kept close tabs on the vessels during their working lives, last referred to the two as functioning stone barges in 1920. The Empire State, located at the head of the point, was reportedly used to extend the company's dock into deeper water in 1916. For many years, the three hulks were popular recreational venues for many Sturgeon Bay residents. However, the Sturgeon Bay Stone Company burned all three vessels to the waterline in 1931 to prevent potential litigation by an injured swimmer or fisherman.

Rising just above the water's surface at Bullhead Point in Sturgeon Bay are three tangible reminders of the city's once-flourishing limestone industry. The three vessels are lying in 0-10 feet of water, offering an excellent opportunity for divers, snorkelers, and kayakers to visit these interesting wrecks. The remains of all three vessels can be seen from the shore. Visibility at the site ranges from 10-25 feet, and water temperature varies from about 45 to 60°F in the summer.

The Bullhead Point site consists of four features: the shipwrecks Empire State, Ida Corning, and Oak Leaf, and the point itself. Located on the west side of Surgeon Bay, Bullhead Point proper is a large rock outcropping piled on an older rock crib pier structure, approximately 380 feet in length by 200 feet at its greatest width.

Perpendicular to the long axis of Bullhead Point are the remains of the propeller-driven steamer Empire State. The hull is large for a mid nineteenth-century wooden ship, at 212 feet in length, with a beam of 35 feet.

Partially sheathed in iron, the vessel's wooden hull is constructed with a complex system of integrated iron strapping for longitudinal reinforcement. The Empire State's starboard side is nearly on shore at water level, and the hold is buried under a considerable pile of stone. The weight of this stone has distorted the ship from its original sleek shape and threatens to break off the port side. The bow is listing to port 10 to 15 degrees, and the entire wreck has twisted under the stress of its stone load. Rising approximately one foot above the water's surface, the stempost is still sheathed with a massive iron shoe for protection from ice, as was the custom for many vessels on the lakes. The vessel is heavily constructed with frames considerably heavier than those of the other two Bullhead Point vessels. Notably, frame sets are tripled and quadrupled toward the after part of the ship to support the boilers and engines, which were removed during the vessel's conversion to a stone barge. Although the propeller and outboard shaft were also removed as part of the vessel's conversion, much of the inboard portion of the shaft remains in place.

The Empire State's port side and bow rise off the bottom nearly to the surface in some 10 to 12 feet of water, and the steamer's starboard side is embedded in the point's eastern shoreline. Consequently, it appears that the old steamer was sunk to extend the loading dock and present a new deep face for the wharf. Ships with a 12-foot draft could easily load off the Empire State's port side.

Preserving the Bullhead Point Shipwrecks
Weather, ice, and the dynamic shallow environment are the chief culprits in the deterioration of the Bullhead Point shipwrecks. During times of exceptionally low water levels, more of the wrecks' structure is exposed to the elements and is more likely to be damaged by ice formation and movement.

By creating a permanent record of what the vessels look like today, the archaeological documentation produced during fieldwork in 1999 is the best way to preserve the history that these vessels represent. This fieldwork and historic research, carried out by the Wisconsin Historical Society (WHS) and East Carolina University's Program in Maritime Studies, was also used to nominate the site to the National Register of Historic Places.

Equally important, WHS underwater archaeologists are using this documentation to create interpretive signage and public presentations. Part of the WHS Wisconsin's Maritime Trails program, these initiatives are aimed at fostering public awareness of Wisconsin's unique maritime history and encouraging preservation of the state's impressive collection of historic shipwrecks. Clearly visible from shore, the Bullhead Point site is an excellent locale for public interpretation of the area's historic stone industry and associated vessels. The site is equally interesting, informative, and accessible to divers, snorkelers, boaters, and pedestrians.

In a metaphorical sense, the Bullhead Point historic district can be used as a time machine to help reconstruct a small part of the late nineteenth-century community of Sturgeon Bay. It conjures a time when the bay echoed to staccato blasts of dynamite and black powder, the constant ring of stone drills, and the intermittent rumbling of hundreds of tons of cargo cascading into the gigantic hollow shells of waiting stone barges.

To visit the Bullhead Point City Park in Sturgeon Bay, go north on N. Duluth Ave. Go past County Road C. Bullhead Point is on the right, across from the old stone quarry.
Confirmed Location     Unconfirmed location
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