Diving with Helium

The investigation into the sinking of the Lakeland was a news story itself. But the venue was also the site of the first human dives with helium gas.

Unfortunately, it didn’t go very well.

Every diver on the 1925 team investigating the wreck experienced “the bends,” or decompression sickness, a painful condition where bubbles from dissolved gasses form in the blood stream or tissues.

Tamara Thomsen, maritime archaeologist with Wisconsin Historical Society’s Maritime Preservation and Archaeology program, said that while those divers were on the right track, they made some errors.

“I found the log from the gas-blending guy—we now think they didn’t bring enough helium, the way modern divers dive now,” said Thomsen. “Modern divers remove nitrogen and replace it with helium, so you don’t get narcosis.”

Narcosis is a phenomenon that occurs at depths, causing divers to experience a foggy mental capacity, much like how nitrous oxide works at the dentist office.

But the 1925 divers were using it as a “wash out” gas, explained Thomsen. “They would dive with (regular compressed) air, then, on the way back, during decompression, they would replace with helium. They had it backwards...but it was their first thinking on it.”

Thomsen said she told this story to a professor from Duke University, a leading expert on decompression issues. “I told him, ‘Bet you didn’t know the first helium dive was here in Wisconsin.’”

Not many did, in fact, because the Navy lost its enthusiasm for helium gas dives after the mostly unsuccessful attempt on the Lakeland, she said.

Later, however, another Wisconsinite, Dr. Edgar End, a physiologist at Marquette University and an expert in hyperbaric medicine, devised new methods to dive with helium, and new dive tables—charts to determine the time needed to safely ascend from a deep dive.

“After testing the new tables on himself, he assisted another diver, Max G. Nohl, in setting a new world’s record for open water deep diving by descending to a depth of 420 feet in Lake Michigan in 1937,” wrote Thomsen in her research paper.

For comparison, the limit for recreational diving is 130 feet deep.

Ultimately, these pioneering helium-diving efforts helped determine the Lakeland’s inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.

What About All Those Cars?

Marine Archaelogist Tamara Thomsen knows shipwrecks. But cars? “I can’t change my own oil,” she said, laughing. “I may not be the best person to write up about cars. But, I found that one guy...”

A big part of the Lakeland’s allure and mystery is the cars aboard. After extensively surveying the wreck, Thomsen determined there had been 22 on board—21 currently, after a 1970s attempt to salvage one—all brand new when the ship went down.

Thomsen found Jim Dworschack of Soldiers Grove, Wis., a collector of Nash automobiles. “I called him and left this crazy message on his voice mail...I said ‘I’m an underwater archaeologist...’”

He called back, she explained, but he was traveling back to LaCrosse from Milwaukee. Since he was passing through Madison, where Thomsen is located, however, he agreed to stop in and see if he could identify the Lakeland’s cars from pictures and video.

“So he came to the library. His hands were greasy—under every fingernail,” she said, laughing. He was clearly an automobile person. “He said he had a half hour. Well, 4-1/2 hours later, he could not believe the cars. We went through all of them.”

Dworschack could identify the Nashes, built in Kenosha. “He told me all this info about them and said they were ‘the common man’s automobile,’” said Thomsen.

With the Nashes identified, Thomsen went in search of Kissel experts. Meeting with the Kissel family, Thomsen found a grandson still in Hartford, Wis., where the autos were built.

“They have a beautiful museum in Hartford,” said Thomsen. She met with Kissel car club members and Doug Kissel, “and they went bananas” after seeing the images.

There were, it turns out, seven Kissels on board. “They were carrying one of each kind available at the time,” said Thomsen.

“These were cars for the wealthy. They were probably trying to get to Detroit for the auto show,” she surmised, because each Kissel was unique and outfitted. “Every one of them...one had a tool box mounted on the running board, one had a clip for golf clubs...”

The remaining five cars were not Nash, said Dworschack. And the Kissel people could not identify them.

Thomsen had run across the people who had attempted to salvage the car in the 70s. They claimed it was a Rollin automobile, built in Cleveland. “I asked, ‘How did you know it was a Rollin?,’ but none of them could remember.”

“So I went ahead and believed it was a Wisconsin-made car. The other ones were. Why would there be cars from Cleveland? It didn’t make sense.”

She looked at other Wisconsin possibilities like Kase. She located experts, but they could not identify them.

She learned, however, that the underside of a car is like its thumbprint. “I had the ‘thumbprint.’ So I looked at Rollin. They were only around for about a year and a half.”

She found a collector who kept a blog and wrote to him “on Wednesday at 4 before a Thanksgiving break.

“When I went back in the office Friday, he had written a 13-page thesis with pictures about why he thought these were Rollin automobiles. He climbed under cars in the museum, took pictures and matched them with those in the shipwreck. I mean, with arrows, like a play by play...” said Thomsen, who was obviously impressed.

“I went out to Cleveland History Center and I met the man, Derek Moore, and he showed me a Rollin car, and he let me get in it. There are only three known existing cars. I’m pretty proud to say, we have five more of them on the bottom of Lake Michigan.”

December 2nd, 1924 was a stormy night on Lake Michigan. Ships that were still plying the waters in the late season scrambled to seek shelter.

Autumn drew to a close, and shipping season slowed, but the Lakeland, loaded with a crew of 27 and a cargo of 22 automobiles, was on Lake Michigan on a voyage from Chicago to Detroit.

To wait out the storm, Lakeland captain John McNeely brought the bulk freighter, built in 1887 in Cleveland—originally named Cambria—into the safety of the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal’s turning basin, just off shore.

Early the next morning, the weather cleared and the Lakeland departed again, moving out into open waters.

But the steam-driven propeller ship didn’t resume its voyage.

Two sailing vessels, the Ann Arbor #6 and the Cygnus came upon the Lakeland off shore and noticed the vessel “making turns, apparently looking for something,” explained Tamara Thomsen, maritime archaeologist with Wisconsin Historical Society’s Maritime Preservation and Archaeology program.

In 2013 through 2015, Thomsen did extensive research on the Lakeland as part of her work to get the vessel listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The two sailing ships came alongside and offered assistance.

She was leaking, the crew said. And there wasn’t enough power to run the pumps and the propeller.

One of the vessels offered to tow the ship back to Sturgeon Bay. Inexplicably, Captain McNeely refused the assistance, arguing the ship was too far gone to save. Then, against logic, the stricken ship dropped anchor in deep water, about six miles off shore from the canal.

“The other vessels were pleading with the captain to allow them to tow the Lakeland to shallow water. But the captain refused lines that were cast to him and refused to relinquish the vessel,” said Thomsen.

Eventually, the Lakeland lowered life rafts, Thompson said, and most of the crew moved over to the Ann Arbor #6. “All but a few left...they even removed everyone’s baggage. Still, the captain and chief engineer remained behind,” said Thomsen.

They had plenty of time to abandon ship, Thomsen said. The sinking process took over three hours. At one point, hatch covers blew 40 feet into the sky, as air pressure built up during the sinking.

The Ann Arbor #6’s young telegraph operator Elliot Jacobson had a camera on board. “He photographed the entirety of the sinking process,” providing one of the first photographic records of a ship sinking in the Great Lakes, said Thomsen.

As the drama played out, Captain McNeely eventually escaped to a lifeboat, keeping hold of a line attached to the Lakeland, not relinquishing command of the ship—and therefore, according to maritime law, remaining in control as captain—as the 297-foot vessel disappeared under the waves to the bottom, 200 feet below. At the bottom, the ship settled on her stern and broke in two.


“Water depth off the ship canal is about 60 feet, for quite a distance out, then, it drops off to 200 feet quickly—it’s where everyone fishes now,” said Thomsen. “They (the Lakeland crew) were searching for this depth to scuttle the vessel.”

There was an obvious conclusion: “People weren’t able to dive that deep at that time—so, (it was assumed) there could be no recovery or investigation,” said Thomsen.

“So, the ship sinks, everyone goes to Sturgeon Bay and a couple crew members make statements to the Door County Advocate,” said Thomsen. “They (the crew) said that it’s in too deep of water and cannot be salvaged, like they had rehearsed the statement.”

“And that raised the hackles of the insurance companies.”

Since all indications pointed in the direction of an intentional sinking, the insurance companies, of course, wanted the wreck investigated.

“The underwriters shopped around for anyone who could dive to that depth,” said Thomsen. And they found a company, Overseas Salvors out of New York, run by “Big Harry” Reinhardson.

Reinhardson was an ex-Navy diver, Thomsen explained. “He said, ‘This dive could be done, but it would require the cooperation of the Navy,’” she said. The Navy, it turns out, was testing a means to do deep diving using helium gas. (See sidebar)

There were five Navy divers stationed in Pittsburgh, Pa., where the U.S. Bureau of Mines had a research station. And they were keen on coming to Sturgeon Bay to dive on the shipwreck.

This initially puzzled Thomsen, who didn’t understand why the Navy was involved in the Lakeland investigation. “Why were Navy divers in Sturgeon Bay, testing their dive tables on a commercial vessel? It didn’t make sense to me,” she said.

“Then, digging into the layers of this stuff...and with a little bit of sleuthing, I found log books and letters between the divers and superiors, seeing if they could come to Wisconsin to do their (human) tests.”

Although at first glance, the association between the Bureau of Mines, the Navy, the Lakeland and helium appeared strange, there was a clear association. Helium was a strategic gas, Thomsen explained, a by-product of mining. “The Navy had sent their top guys over there (to Pittsburgh) to look at helium for diving. They were using guinea pigs to test it, then dogs. And they were at a point to do human testing,” she said.

“The Navy divers wrote to their bosses to get permission to come here and test these new diving schedules and gases,” said Thomsen. “But the officers said, ‘No way!’ So, the divers devised this scheme—they could take a vacation, and on their vacation time, they could work for Oversea Salvors. Their gas engineer took a vacation, as well.”

In August 1925, the Door County Advocate’s headlines announced that the U.S. was conducting diving tests in the Lakeland investigation. “But there was a whole lot more behind this,” said Thomsen, who researched the mysteries.

While those early pioneers of deep diving were closing in on a means of allowing longer and deeper dives, their method was still flawed, said Thomsen, and the divers had problems, including “skin itches” and “the bends.”

Although those first helium dives were less than successful, they opened an important chapter in evolving diving technology. (See sidebar on right.)

As for the Lakeland, the dive crew also made important discoveries regarding the sinking—certain valves were opened to take on water, they claimed. The evidence was later presented, “in agonizing detail,” Thomsen said, by the insurance companies’ lawyers.


Almost 90 years later, armed with the accumulated knowledge of decades of research and better diving technology, Thomsen was able to personally dive on the wreck. “It’s a unique experience,” said Thomsen. “It’s like diving in an auto showroom. It’s really a special place, to go there to visit.”

Renowned underwater videographers John Janzen and John Scoles, who worked with National Geographic and History Channel, were on hand to document the wreck.

Thomsen arranged a two-week field project on the Lakeland. “The goal was to be there for one week,” with bad-weather dates built in. The divers were instructed to “video as much as possible and in as much detail as possible. Not the beauty shots, but a catalog. (They were) to stick a camera in every room,” she explained.

That two-week stretch turned out to have absolutely perfect weather every day, remembered Thomsen, affording the crew plenty of time to accomplish their goals, and then some. “We had an hour on the bottom every day, with an hour and half to return (to the surface, with decompression time.) We captured all this video—more than you’d want to see of the Lakeland,” she said, laughing. “We tried to make sure we had full coverage.”

Later, Thomsen returned to do more research diving on the Lakeland, this time with a few volunteers trained on taking measurements and making observations to support their bid to have the wreck listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“There were five divers in the water every day. We had to write up the site plan and write a description of what it looks like on the bottom,” for the listing.

They also evaluated every car still on board.

“There’s lots of misinformation about the cars,” said Thomsen. And for good reason—a lot of the early news was speculative at best. Even the captain and crew had different accounts of the number of cars aboard.

There were lawsuits, after the investigation in the mid Twenties, some settled out of court, so the information about the Lakeland’s cargo wasn’t readily available, Thomsen explained. What she discovered, after doing research and video surveying, is that 22 cars—Nash, Kissel and Rollins makes and models—were aboard when the ship went down. (See sidebar)

“There are 21 there currently—one was salvaged in the 70s,” said Thomsen. “But, (the salvagers) made an error in lifting it, and dragged it into the (underwater) wall. They basically ripped all the sheet metal off the car.” The recovered car, determined to be a Rollin, was taken to the dump shortly after being lifted from the water.

With all the videos, photos and measurements, “We went back (to Madison), wrote up papers, researched history—the whole history—and put the nomination together,” said Thomsen. “Then, we presented it to the state board. It was unanimously approved.”

From there, it went to the National Park Service. “We wrote this in 2014, and it was listed in 2015.”

Listing a shipwreck is not particularly unusual, said Thomsen. They are routinely added to the National Register of Historic Places list because in 1987, Congress passed the Abandoned Shipwreck Act, giving states ownership of wrecks on their bottom lands and allowing the historic designation. Once listed, it is easier to enforce laws protecting shipwrecks from looting and damage.

Wisconsin has 63 shipwrecks on the National Register, said Thomsen, “with three more in the queue and a couple more sitting back. It’s a pipeline. Every year, we evaluate three or four. Not every one is eligible. Some are more broken up.”

Different factors determine if a wreck is eligible. With the Lakeland, its unique history was important. Besides its interesting story, including the intentional sinking, and its cargo of automobiles, “the part it played in evolving diving technology is one of several things it was able to be listed for,” said Thomsen.