World Underwater – BY Holly Leitner
LEARNING TO BREATHE
I’m at the Loves Park Scuba, doing my first scuba training. As a true claustrophobic,
I’ll see if it works. Diver Dan starts me off with a “snooba,” a hybrid of snorkeling
and scuba, where the swimmer breathes through a mask connected via a long tube to
exterior tanks. You can take this off at any point, because the main problem people
have with scuba is the panic.
It’s difficult to get used to breathing with something over your face. I practice
several times before I’m ready to put on the oxygen tanks. But when I do, I’m ready.
The main ingredient to scuba is breathing, which makes sense, as SCUBA, my instructor
tells me, stands for Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus. Coordinating
the breath to up-and-down movements in the water to avoid the “bends,” or depressurization
This is my first practice dive, next step: pool SCUBA diving, then two open-water
Following that, the world is my oyster, or the ocean of oysters is at my disposal,
though I must continue with my open-water certification.
THE DAY OF THE DIVE
Morning beams shoot across the glassy morning surface of Geneva Lake. One solo vessel
rumbles from the Williams Bay public launch... It’s not a sailboat. It’s not a speedboat
or a Streblow, but a retired coast guard ship with a diving flag flapping.
“Gorgeous day for diving,” declares “Diver Dan” Johnson, charter captain and owner
of Loves Park Scuba and Lockwood Pioneer Scuba Diving Museum. He says this as though
he’s sharing a secret. All the fellow divers collectively inhale the crisp Wednesday
morning air of Geneva Lake.
Diver Dan and his army of wetsuits face the lake, ready to explore the untold, hidden
stories of what lies beneath the surface of Geneva Lake. The second deepest lake
in Wisconsin, Geneva is full of crystal-clear, spring-fed water, which acts like
a magnifying glass to century-old treasures. These treasures tell the story of another
time—a time of steamers and old yachts that conveyed people from trains to their
estates bottles that hint at romping good parties, and motor vehicles that tell
of someone’s misfortune.
“It’s always a good dive in this lake,” says Johnson. The uneven terrain, abundant
fish habitats and wrecks make it an adventure. Johnson has been diving since 1973
and offers chartered diving excursions in Geneva and Lake Michigan. In the winter
months, he heads to turquoise waters to dive. Today’s divers are on a three-hour
morning tour of a couple of wrecks in the lake.
So, what’s in Geneva Lake? Geneva has been a haven for good parties for more than
a century. The old estates offer a haven for secrets of life in the 19th and early
20th centuries. “We find tons of old bottles,” says Johnson. His theory is that
people threw out their garbage filled with glass bottles off the side of their pier,
perhaps thinking the glass bottle would revert back to its original form of sand.
Some of these bottles, on display at the Lockwood Pioneer Scuba Diving Museum, date
back to 1860. Johnson takes his charters to his favorite hot spots on the lake.
Apart from bottles, there are large vessels nestled on Geneva’s floor for divers
to explore. As researched and chronicled by Larry Larkin in his books, Full Speed
Ahead: The Story of the Steamboat Era on Lake Geneva and Grand & Glorious: Classic
Boats of Lake Geneva, the tale of underwater vessels is a fascinating one.
What Lies Beneath
Lady of the Lake I
Lady of the Lake was built in 1872–73 by John W. French for Ed Quigley. Quigley
was looking for a new business venture since his had burned down. After a pleasant
ride on another steamer, he was determined to build one of his own, to be called
Lady of the Lake. The 82-foot, sidewheel double-decker was launched on May 10, 1873.
The following winter saw another 16 feet added to the popular lake cruiser to give
her room to hold more than two hundred passengers on her journeys around the lake.
In 1893, after several happy years of usage, another refurbishment and more tours,
the Lady was finally put to rest. She was taken to Lower Duck Hole, where her superstructure
was removed and her hull filled with rocks. At the end of the year, the old steamer
was towed and sunk off the shore of the Country Club. But that wasn’t the end of
After a rainy spring the following year, the hull popped to the surface and drifted
east along the south shore, where it lay for a number of years in shallow waters.
Occasionally large commercial steamers would hit the hull as it lay submerged in
their traffic lane, so in July of 1896, someone decided to do something about it.
Captain L. L. Hawver attached a large hook to the hull and used another steamer,
Bavaria, to drag it out. Lady of the Lake would not budge, so he tied up with another
large steamer, Harvard, ahead of him and they began to heave the old hull out of
When Hawver whistled for the other boat to slow down, the other man misunderstood
and sped up. This caused the hull to dive to the bottom of the lake, nearly dragging
the stern of Hawver’s boat with it, but he quickly cut the line. The hull drifted
down to the floor of the lake where it remains today—in only 35 feet of water near
the Narrows. The original flag of the Lady of the Lake is housed in the Geneva Lake
Museum of History.
LUCIUS NEWBERRY / CITY OF LAKE GENEVA
This stately steamer was born in 1874–75 out of a fierce competition between two
good friends: Oscar Newberry, who was the son of Lucius Newberry, and Ed Quigley,
the captain of the Lady of the Lake. The story goes that Newberry was out fishing
and, when he hailed the passing Lady of the Lake as a squall was bearing down, Quigley
passed him by. Incensed, he vowed to build a bigger, better boat and drive the Lady
off the lake.
It cost him $16,000 but, at that time, Lucius Newberry was the most elegant specimen
on the lake. The 115-foot side-wheeler held 700 people and had a 125-horsepower
steam engine; a 25-footlong and five-foot-diameter boiler; and three-inch oak planking
on the hull. The interior featured paintings by Lake Geneva artist John Bullock
among other fine attributions. Atop the steamer was a bronze bell confiscated from
a Mexican church during the Mexican-American War.
Lucius Newberry went through several owners over the next 15 years. In 1890 John
Wilson acquired it and changed its name to City of Lake Geneva. On December 6, 1891,
disaster struck. Tethered to the public dock in Lake Geneva, the City of Lake Geneva
was discovered swallowed up in flames. And what was worse, there were other nearby
boats in danger, so authorities cut the lines and watched the flaming steamer pick
up a southwesterly breeze and drift along her normal route before sinking.
City of Lake Geneva went down in 65 feet of water. It was rediscovered in July of
1981 by divers Bill Ehrhardt, Ron Steishal and Mark Terry. City of Lake Geneva burned
to the water line so there wasn’t much left for divers to view. While some remnants
remain underground for divers to explore, the Geneva Lake Museum of History houses
an interesting display of photographs of its recovery and some relics, such as its
anchor and some nails. They have the hull in storage due to unfortunate damage.
Its boiler and engine is housed at The Smithsonian in Washington D.C.
The Majestic was taken out and sunk off the Military Academy site, now South Shore
Club, three days after it burned. “I was told by Gene Liechty, whose father was
50 percent owner of the excursion boat company at the time, that the heat had warped
the hull and they wanted to get it out of sight as quickly as possible,” shares
Larry Larkin, area author and boat enthusiast.
Doreen sunk somewhere north of Black Point. It sunk in a storm while at anchor earlier
and, although it was refloated, it leaked so badly they couldn’t keep it floating.
“I believe the engine, a Sterling Dolphin, was still in it,” postulates Larkin.
Harvard’s super-structure was stripped off and the hull sunk. When it is found,
it can be identified by many tons of railroad rails that were put inside the hull
to help stabilize it when it was in use.
“There are two or three other excursion boats that are also sunk out there but information
on them is sketchy and unreliable,” says Larkin. In his second book, Grand & Glorious,
he chronicles the noble burial of Nettie, a Lake Geneva Yacht Club race winner since
its inception in 1876, and model for the Sheridan Trophy.
The year 1892 saw another notable change in the roster to the Lake Geneva sailing
fleet. It had been many years since Nettie had competed in a race, and Julian M.
Rumsey still had her and couldn’t bear to sell her. In 1892 he decided on ‘burial
at sea.’ At dawn one summer day, Rumsey and Tilford Stuyvesant, a boat builder new
to the lake, filled Nettie with stones and towed her out to the middle of Geneva
Bay. There they bored several holes in her, cut her adrift, and watched the former
queen of the fleet slowly go under.
Other, less noble vehicles, have also found their way to the bottom of Geneva Lake.
They include a bug and a home on water.
The story is that this bug tragically went down after driving on thin ice one New
Year’s Eve. It’s also been said that on a calm day, one can see the bug from the
shore path near Black Point, as it rests in only 12 feet of water.
Located in 70 feet of water directly across from Williams Bay near the south shore,
this wreck has the classic underwater eerie feeling to it.
Most wrecks in Geneva are now covered with zebra mussels, the invasive species despised
by lake lovers. If there is one positive quality of the mussels, it’s that they
improve visibility for divers.
At the end of the morning, Diver Dan points his vessel back to the Bay and heads
in for lunch. Smiles are painted across the divers’ faces, whether they found much
today or just enjoyed the art of looking underwater. “There are no winners, no losers,
no killing or chasing, unlike many sports—it’s just a good form of recreation,”
Johnson smiles. And while Lake Geneva has tons of great things to see, do and explore,
there’s still much of the underwater world that has yet to be discovered.