4-Year-Old Goes on a Fishing Trip and Finds a Shipwreck From 1871

By: Lauren | Published: Jan 02, 2024

A 4-year-old named Henley Wollak made an extraordinary discovery while fishing on Lake Michigan, finding a shipwreck that dates back 152 years.

This incredible event showcases the unforeseen and remarkable discoveries that can occur in everyday life. Henley, with her lively imagination, usually spent her bedtime dreaming of sea creatures, but this real-life adventure surpassed her imaginary tales.

From Bedtime Stories to a Real Adventure

Every night, Henley Wollak, a (now) 5-year-old with a vivid imagination, would dream of being a sea creature under her mermaid-themed bedspread.

A young child with blond hair, wearing a blue life jacket and sunglasses, sits on the seat of a moving boat. The child is smiling broadly, with a forested shoreline and a cloudy sky in the background

Source: Tim Wollack/Facebook

Her world of fantasy met reality during a summer day on Lake Michigan when she and her father stumbled upon a 150-year-old shipwreck.

An Unexpected Sight Under the Water

While on a boating trip, Henley and her father, Tim Wollak, noticed something unusual beneath the lake’s surface.

A sonar scan image displaying a submerged structure with distinct linear patterns showing a shipwreck on the seafloor. The scan shows concentric circles with numerical degree markings indicating the range and scope of the sonar's reach

Source: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

Initially thought to be an octopus by Henley, her father recognized it as potentially more significant, given the history of numerous unaccounted shipwrecks in Lake Michigan. This moment marked the beginning of their astonishing discovery.

Social Media Leads to Recognition

Tim Wollak, after recognizing the significance of their find, shared photos of the underwater anomaly on Facebook.

Sonar image displaying the grainy outline of what appears to be a shipwreck on the ocean floor. The image shows the detailed structure of the wreck, including what could be the rib-like components of the hull

Source: Tim Wollack/Facebook

This act of sharing what they witnessed brought widespread attention to their discovery. “At first when we saw it in the boat, I thought it was cool to see something like that,” Wollak told USA TODAY. The magnitude of their find was yet to be fully understood.

Confirmation from the Historical Society

The Wisconsin Historical Society later confirmed the significance of their find, revealing that the Wollaks had discovered a shipwreck lost over a century ago.

Black and white image of an old, decrepit shipwreck partially submerged in still water. The ship's skeletal wooden structure is prominently visible, with its rib-like beams deteriorating and sticking out at various angles

Source: Alwi Alaydrus/Unsplash

This validation turned their casual boating trip into a significant historical revelation, far exceeding their initial expectations.

Identifying the Sunken Ship

After careful analysis, researchers from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources indicated that the shipwreck discovered by Henley and her father is likely the remains of the George L. Newman.

Underwater video still showing a blurred image of a shipwreck resting on the ocean floor. The visibility is limited, but the outline of the wreck is discernible among the marine sediment and debris

Source: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

This vessel, built before the Civil War, had a tragic end in 1871, trying to navigate through the dense smoke of the Peshtigo Fire, the deadliest forest fire in U.S. history.


Rediscovering a Long-Lost Ship

The George L. Newman, after being lost for so many years, was rediscovered by the Wollaks.

An aerial photograph capturing a rusted shipwreck on a sandy beach, bisected by the meeting point of two contrasting shades of water. The skeletal remains of the ship’s structure are laid bare

Source: Andreas Rasmussen/Unsplash

According to the Wisconsin Historical Society, the ship was abandoned, became covered with sand, and was largely forgotten until its recent exposure and discovery last summer.


An Adventure with Historical Consequences

Henley’s desire to swim and look for rocks and sea glass led her and her father to this significant discovery.

A father and his young daughter are smiling and posing for a photo on a boat with a clear blue sky and calm sea in the background. The father, wearing a cap and sunglasses, is holding up a fish they have caught. The daughter, also in a cap, is touching the fish and smiling broadly

Source: Tim Wollack/Facebook

Their casual outing turned into an event of historical importance. “She ultimately put us in that location because that’s where she wanted to swim,” Wollak said in an interview with USA Today, highlighting the serendipitous nature of their find.


The Significance of the Wreck

Maritime archaeologist Tamara Thomsen expressed surprise at the discovery, speaking to FOX 11 NEWS, noting that the shipwreck was not previously documented in that area.

An underwater diver equipped with a twin-tank scuba setup and a camera rig is exploring a shipwreck. The diver is hovering near the deck of the sunken vessel, which is covered in marine growth and sediment

Source: NOAA/Unsplash

“It’s a pretty significant shipwreck, pretty old for Wisconsin shipwrecks,” Thomsen said about the vessel.


The Final Voyage of the Newman

According to The Wisconsin Historical Society, the shipwreck, the George L. Newman, was built in 1855 and met its end during its last voyage in October 1871.

An aerial shot overlooking a shoreline where the rolling waves of a vast lake meet a sandy beach. Adjacent to the beach are sprawling sand dunes transitioning into a dense autumn forest with trees showcasing a spectrum of fall colors

Source: Aaron Burden/Unsplash

The National Weather Society reported that the ship was navigating through thick smoke from the Peshtigo Fire, a devastating forest fire that claimed over 1,200 lives.


A Lighthouse's Witness to History

The Wisconsin Historical Society recounts how the story of the George L. Newman is intertwined with the Green Island lighthouse keeper’s actions during the ship’s final hours.

A tranquil scene featuring a white lighthouse with a green railing at the top, standing on a rocky jetty during sunset

Source: Paulius Dragunas/Unsplash

The lighthouse keeper not only rescued the crew but also witnessed the ship’s demise, offering a unique perspective on this historical event.


Young Explorer's Impact on History

While Henley Wollak may not fully understand the historical magnitude of her discovery, it is a significant contribution to maritime history.

A cheerful young girl with blond hair wearing a colorful life jacket and stylish sunglasses is seated on a boat

Source: Tim Wollack/Facebook

Her discovery has brought a forgotten piece of history back into public knowledge. “She has such a love for the outdoors, I think as she gets older the magnitude of this will sink in for her,” her father remarked to USA TODAY.