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Life Boat

Tim Early and the Salvation of a Beloved Wreck



He didn't know it then, but the first time Tim Early ever went snorkeling he came within a few hundred yards of the shipwreck George F. Williams. It was August 1962, and Early was 15. "I swam right off where the Hammond Marina is now," he says. "I was in the water a while, but I couldn't see the Williams."

Early, who grew up on the city's far southeast side, loved being in the water, and a year later he was a certified scuba diver. He finished high school, worked at a local factory, then in 1968 enlisted and wound up as a medic in Vietnam. When he came home he became a scuba instructor. He also studied environmental science at Olive Harvey College and Governors State University, but dropped out a few credits short of his bachelor's to teach diving full-time. Gradually he began doing surveys and collecting specimens for scientists conducting research on Lake Michigan.

On weekends Early would explore the lakeshore, looking for artifacts and always hoping to spot a wreck. One of his favorite finds is a gold piece with a marked value of two and a half dollars that he discovered wedged between some rocks outside of Calumet Harbor in 1975.

In August 1981 Early and some of his diving friends who'd heard about locating shipwrecks from the air scanned the southern shore of Lake Michigan from a four-seater plane. Early saw what looked like the outline of one just off Hammond's shore. They all immediately went diving in the area, but found only piles of rocks.

Later one of those friends located the wreck 20 feet under the surface, but Early didn't get out to it until the summer of 1983. Afterward he recorded the following: "Swimming straight out from shore, I knew I was bound to hit the target. I came upon a massive wooden 'wall' that I thought was a ship, but I couldn't be sure. Then I began to swim along the side, and swim, and swim, and swim. It was gigantic, like being on an ocean liner in a dense fog. You know that you are on a ship, but you can only see a few feet of it at a time.... When I came to the end of the structure, there in front of me was a huge propeller. Each blade over six feet in length. It was not only a ship, it was one of the largest ships that I had ever been diving on.

"How something so large could lie so close to shore, have no history, and have gone undetected for so long astounded me. That ship was to become my greatest pleasure and biggest pain for the next few years."

Early wanted to protect the wreck. "I got very possessive and obsessive," he says. He and other divers surveyed the ship, which was sitting upright. The hull, propeller, and boiler were still intact--and covered with algae and zebra mussels--but everything on what had been the upper deck was gone. Nothing was left that identified the ship. Even the bulkheads were missing. Soon the Williams made it onto government charts as "Unknown #2."

In 1988 Early heard rumors that Hammond was planning to build a marina near the wreck, which he was sure would destroy it. He promptly started the Hammond Shipwreck Project, enlisting more than 100 volunteers to try to save the ship by digging up its history and publicizing their efforts.

Al Konieczka, who worked for Encyclopaedia Britannica, read about the project in the local paper. He went to the National Archives office on South Pulaski, which he knew kept ship records. After searching through five musty boxes, he came upon drawings of the ship and an inspection report dated April 22, 1915. Records he found at the Institute for Great Lakes Research in Ohio filled in more details. "When I found out the name of that ship, I was like, 'Hey man!'" Konieczka says. "I was wound up like a three-dollar watch--this was like a major accomplishment in my life."

The George F. Williams, it turned out, had been built in Bay City, Michigan, in 1889 for a Cleveland company called Hawgood. It was a 280-foot cross between a sailing ship and a steamer--its hull was made of both wood and steel, and it had an engine in addition to four masts, though three of them were removed in 1893 to make the boat faster. It was one of the largest steamers on the Great Lakes, hauling coal with a crew of 20.

The Williams was acquired in 1901 by the Gilchrist Transportation Company, which was located in Toledo and once had the largest independent fleet on the Great Lakes. But Gilchrist depended too much on its sailing ships at a time when steamers were taking over. By 1910 the company was sagging under debt, and soon its ships were being auctioned off at fire-sale prices. When Gilchrist went bankrupt in 1913, the Toledo Blade called it "the last chapter of a business tragedy."

No one bought the Williams, which was towed to Chicago and sold to a salvager named Sam Opinski for $800. He had it towed to Hammond, where he stripped off the fourth mast, the engine, and anything else that looked to be of value. He then tied the Williams to a pier and abandoned it.

According to the 1915 inspection report Konieczka found, written by Raymond Smith of the U.S. Engineers Office, "Mr. Opinski was notified that he would be held responsible by the United States in case this wreck should get away and drift out into the lake." What happened next isn't clear. One story is that the U.S. Engineers Office deliberately sank it. Another is that a storm rose up and the Williams broke free. As it pulled away from the pier and drifted out into the lake, a steel mooring line ripped away part of the bow, leaving a gaping hole. Water poured in, and the ship sank about 350 feet from shore.

"The first time I saw the Williams," says Early, "I thought, 'What can I find on here that's worth something? The heck with this underwater archaeology stuff--where are the valuables?'" He laughs. "There was a lampshade here, a lock and a padlock there." Opinski had picked it clean.

In February 1989 Early and Konieczka and another diver from the Hammond Shipwreck Project gave a lecture at Shedd Aquarium on what they'd discovered. "It definitely elevated interest," says Early. But not from Hammond officials.

For decades, Hammond's shoreline had looked like a slag dump. It was largely deserted, save for the mobs of revelers who regularly spent the night, contributing to its "bare-ass beach" and "beer-can coast" reputation. City officials wanted to overhaul that image, as well as revitalize an economy sent into free fall by the declining steel industry. In 1990 they announced plans to build a $23 million marina.

Early knew that to save the ship he needed another plan. "Divers were already stripping it, and the marina was going to bury it," he says. "That inspired me to get off my butt." He met with the mayor and other officials, arguing that they were about to destroy something invaluable. He got the support of the Indiana Natural Resources Commission, which had some sway because the Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1987 had recently transferred the care of wrecks to individual states.

Finally the city agreed to move the marina 700 feet to the east. It opened in 1991, with a gift shop in another old ship, the Milwaukee Clipper, which was tied to a dock. The marina's director gave Early space on the boat to set up educational exhibits.

Early knew that Indianans rarely thought of the lake when they described their state, and that when they did think of the lake, they thought of sewage and old tires and industrial runoff. He wanted to teach kids that Indiana had a maritime history, that the lake was full of wildlife. "You ask any kid, no matter what grade, 'Do you know what a shark or a whale or a dolphin is?' They say, yeah," he says. "You ask, 'What's in Lake Michigan, two miles away?' They have no idea."

The Aquatic Resource Center was intended to "plug that gap." In his spare time, Early gradually created an office and a classroom on the Milwaukee Clipper. He was still teaching diving and still going on scientific dives--he'd even helped set up an underwater preserve near Cozumel, Mexico. And he was publishing his own research--he's written articles on controlling zebra mussels, on freshwater sponges, and on spawning salmon around wastewater-treatment plants in Indiana. "I know a lot about science," he says, "but I'm a diver first." Along the way he also learned to make underwater films.

The Williams, he thought, was the perfect educational display, because it was close to shore and intact. It had settled in the path of warm effluent from a corn-processing factory that opened around 1910. "That's what has kept her from freezing and breaking apart," he says. "If it weren't for that industrial outfall, you wouldn't even know the Williams was there." And unlike other ships that sink close to shore, it had never been deemed a navigational hazard, because no one seemed to know it was there--few boats ventured into the polluted water off Hammond. "Eventually she'll disintegrate," he says. "Until she does, the Williams should be used as a historic benchmark to let kids know the state has a maritime history--kids tend to take shipwrecks very seriously."

Early collected a variety of things to create an exhibit--an aquarium, charts and maps, artifacts from the Williams and other wrecks--and by 1996 he was ready to put the pieces together. But then the Hammond Port Authority, which governed the struggling marina, leased the Milwaukee Clipper's dock to the Empress Casino.

Early wasn't about to give up on his idea of an educational center. In the end he wound up as the head of three, all in East Chicago, which together he calls the Aquatic Research Institute. The first branch opened in 1996 at Central High School, where he uses the pool to teach scuba diving. The second opened in 1997 at Lincoln Elementary, where he set up a research lab. The third opened two years later in the Pastrick Marina, where all of Early's exhibit materials are now in storage because there's no place to display them. But there is room for Project AquaQuest, which produces videos on underwater ecology and lake shipwrecks that are broadcast over a fiber-optic network to classrooms around the country and even as far away as Australia. The institute is supported by fees and grants.

In mid-April, Early was at the Project AquaQuest office talking to its director, Jim Gentile. The two men met a decade ago on the diving-instruction circuit, though Gentile joked, "Actually, we met in a bar fight." Early laughed and said, "Yeah. We made up and decided to start a business."

Gentile shoots a lot of the videos, but that day the water was too murky. "I couldn't see," he said. "It was like diving in 2 percent--no, 1 percent--milk."

Early pointed at a video from 1996 that was playing in the VCR. "That's me in the water there," he said. "All of this fuzzy stuff is sponges. Those are zebra mussels. And there's the Williams--see it?"

Early had grown increasingly concerned about the Williams as the level of Lake Michigan dropped, making it more likely that boats would clip the wreck or whack it with their anchors. Last fall he contacted state officials and persuaded them to become part of what would eventually be called the George F. Williams Shipwreck Workgroup. Then he helped to organize a meeting at a time when everyone could attend.

For a year Early had felt tired and sick, but he hadn't gone to a doctor. "I'd been through a year of denial," he says. "I finally went for a physical, and that's when I had the famous X ray. They found a mass on my lung." He was diagnosed with cancer in his lungs and liver shortly before Christmas. He was told that he had six months to a year to live and that he would probably never dive again.

Early, who's 54, had always made sure his family had health coverage--he's been married for 23 years--but he didn't have a policy of his own. For two weeks he worried about how he'd pay for treatment, then realized he could get it through a VA hospital. On January 2 he started getting chemotherapy at Lakeside Veterans Administration Hospital. The doctors told him the chance he'd go into remission was only 1 percent.

He could barely walk after his first round of chemotherapy and had to use a wheelchair. After a couple more sessions he moved up to a walker, and later he was able to walk on his own. He lost his hair and 30 pounds, which he hoped were signs that the chemo was working.

The first meeting of the work group was finally held on March 8 at the Hammond Marina, but Early couldn't go because he was scheduled for chemotherapy. Taking his place was Joe Oliver, an underwater videographer who'd recently become director of photography at the Underwater Archaeological Society of Chicago and who'd been brought in to shoot footage for Project AquaQuest in February. "I was high as a kite getting out of that meeting," Oliver says. "The mind-set of the state is not maritime, so to get that many department heads to be excited about a shipwreck is amazing."

Fourteen people were there, including officials from the Hammond parks and recreation department, a state archaeologist, and Steve Lucas of the Indiana Natural Resources Commission. "The shipwreck is significant to the maritime history of southern Lake Michigan," Lucas says. "I didn't think we'd have gross hostility to it, but it's been a challenge to make people aware of what a wonderful resource it is."

Six weeks later Oliver was at the Pastrick Marina describing the meeting to Early, telling him that everyone had agreed to protect the wreck with buoys and that they'd discussed putting in interpretive displays and promoting the site. Early listened quietly, intently. "What I want to see is safe access--for the boats and the wreck," he said. "It looks very promising if everybody means what they said there. I always have my doubts when politicians get involved."

Early said the ultimate goal would be a park with underwater trails marked by colored buoys and interpretive signs, like the one he worked on in Cozumel or the ones Michigan has. "I'm looking for one or two or three different trails, with colored buoys for each trail," he said.

They talked for an hour, then Early walked over to a side counter, picked up a weathered cardboard box with "Shipwreck Project" scrawled on the side, and placed it in front of Oliver. Oliver looked inside, where there were drawings and maps and lists and pictures of volunteers--the history of the project. Early said, "Joe, I'm going to leave this box with you."

"Oh, this is the box," Oliver said. "Well, we've got to digitize this. It'll be very exciting getting all this together in one spot.

"Yeah, yeah, whatever," Early said. "Well, it's pretty disorganized."

Oliver tucked the box under his arm, and Early watched him go. "I would put my faith in Joe," he said. "He's got the vision, and he's got the passion."

Gentile says there are two kinds of divers in this world: those who take anything and everything they can from a wreck, then leave it to rot at the back of the garage, and those who find artifacts worth preserving, then figure out a way to share them with others. "Many divers take but don't show," he says. "Tim has always been a sharer in that regard."

When Gentile learned of Early's illness he started thinking a lot about his friend's legacy. He talked it over with friends, including Patrick Hammer, who started the Scuba Emporium in Alsip and also runs Our World Underwater, the midwest's premier aquatic convention. With $5,000 in seed money from Our World Underwater, they decided to start a foundation named after Early, that would help children who want to learn to scuba dive but can't afford it. "With Tim sick," Gentile says, "we thought it would leave--we thought it would be a vehicle to continue his wishes. He's done so much and wants to do so much more. There's nobody in the midwest scuba industry who's reached out and talked to more students than Tim. It seemed to make sense to have a foundation with his name on it--not devoted to ocean diving, but to midwest diving."

This year's Our World Underwater convention was held in Rosemont the last weekend in April. Early brought his wife, Kathe, to the Saturday-night film festival, which included a documentary on sharks and another on the release of Keiko the whale. Also in the audience of more than 1,000 were Jean-Michel Cousteau, the filmmaking son of Jacques, and Stan Waterman, the cinematographer for Jaws. But before the films started, a three-and-a-half-minute video began to play. Early soon recognized the footage--mostly shots of him taken by Gentile, who'd made the video to preface the announcement of the Tim Early Foundation.

Early, who'd known about plans for a foundation but was kept in the dark about when it would be announced, gave a short speech thanking his friends. "Normally, late at night I'm weak and tired from all the chemo," he said later. "But after Saturday, man, I tell you I was up until four in the morning. This was better than meeting Jacques Cousteau."

Two days later Early was out at the Hammond Marina. A harbormaster named Gloria ferried him out to the Williams. "Are they thinking about removing it?" she asked.

"No," Early shouted above the din of the motor. "They're thinking about preserving it."

The boat turned north after the breakwall, and after another 200 yards Early could see the familiar shadow of the Williams. "That should be it right there," he said. "OK, you're heading right for it--go a little more to starboard."

Early wasn't allowed to dive because his lungs were too weak, but he'd brought along an Aquascope, a three-foot tube with a glass bottom that let him see the Williams below. Peering down, he declared that it was too murky to see the stern post, but he had a fine shot of the boiler.

"I need to get in there--I want to get in the water," he said. "I've got to get back down there and touch that thing again. I've got four doctors telling me, 'No, you'll never dive again,' and then another one telling me, 'Well, you never know.' I think I'm going to go with that one."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane/Institute for Great Lakes Research.

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