Skip to main content

Lost and found: Interlaken shipwreck found by plumber father and pilot son

Date Posted: January 21 2005

MUSKEGON - The shifting sands on the bottom of Lake Michigan moved aside long enough in September 2003 for Plumbers, Pipe Fitters and Service Trades Local 174 member Doug Freye and his son Jonathon to make a once-in-a-lifetime discovery.

Flying on a clear day, Doug was in the back seat of a Piper Warrior piloted by Jonathon, then a 16-year-old student pilot, along with his flying instructor Mike Jensen. They spotted a long, dark object below the surface of the clear Lake Michigan water, about 400 feet off shore. A shipwreck perhaps?

A few hours after spotting the object from 2,000 feet in the air and noting the location with GPS, Doug and Jonathon took their boat out for a closer inspection. Peering down through a scuba mask from the lake surface, they confirmed they were looking at a shipwreck. As licensed scuba divers, both Jonathon and his dad were uniquely qualified to investigate.

A few days later, they dove on the hulk, resting on its side in 20 to 30 feet of water. They took a few measurements, and with some old newspaper, library and Internet research by Doug's wife Melissa, determined that they had found the Interlaken, a 170-foot vessel that sank just north of Whitehall in 1934. The whereabouts of the sunken ship were unknown - or at least forgotten - until the aerial discovery.

Freye said. "I couldn't wait to get down there to see what history is going to let you take a look at."

Added Jonathon: "After seeing it from the air, and then diving on it, and then knowing you're the first people to see the ship after all these years - that's really something."

The Muskegon Chronicle made the discovery of the shipwreck front-page news on Dec. 15. Research by the Freyes found that the two-masted Interlaken was built as a schooner in 1893 in Algonac. It was owned and operated by A.W. Comstock of Alpena and sailed the Great Lakes moving shingles and lumber. The schooner was converted into a barge in 1913.

The Chronicle said one reference had the vessel being used as a construction platform during the building of the North Manitou Shoals Lighthouse.

On Oct. 4, 1934, the Interlaken and a flat scow were being towed to White Lake for the winter when the tugboat ran out of coal about four miles north of the White Lake Channel. The tugboat made it through heavy seas into port, but the Interlaken sank with four crewmen aboard, who were saved by a Coast Guard rescue party. The barge, the scow and their cargoes were valued at $75,000. The Freyes believed the scow washed ashore. An attempt by the owner to salvage the Interlaken failed.

Doug and Jonathon have dived on the wreck several times. Depending on the shifting sands at the bottom of the lake, Doug Freye said they have spotted the ship's retractable center-board keel, wood-block pullies, a small boiler and a great deal of chain. "The sand on the bottom changes what you see all the time," he said. The hold is filled with sand, he added.

Even before publication of the Muskegon Chronicle article, word had gotten out in the local dive community about the wreck. "People are watching you from the shore with binoculars, and the dive shop is wondering why you're going out more often," Doug Freye said. "It's hard to keep any secrets."

A union member since 1977, Doug Freye works for Pressures and Pipes Mechanical, and is currently working at Hackley Hospital in Muskgeon. Doug said he enjoys flying with his only child, and even though flying lessons aren't inexpensive, he and Melissa are trying to help Jonathon along in his career path.

"I'm proud of my son," Doug said. "He's skilled as a pilot and focused on a career in aviation. He could fly before he could drive a car."

Jonathon, now 17, is a senior at Muskegon Catholic Central. He is now a licensed pilot and plans on studying in an aviation program at Western Michigan University this fall for the purpose of becoming a commercial pilot.

Having spotted the Interlaken from the air and being the first to dive on it since it sank, Doug said he and his son feel a connection with the lost ship.

"Having been there when it was discovered it, and then being the first to dive on it, you do feel a sense of ownership," Doug Freye acknowleged.

State law forbids removal of any artifacts from shipwreck sites. But Doug Freye figures some items will eventually go missing by light-fingered divers. His hope is that the state will allow a few artifacts to be taken up and put on display in a local museum. "I'd love to find an anchor or something substantial that we can salvage and put it in a museum," he said. "Hopefully the state DNR will allow that at some point."

PILOTING A PIPER WARRIOR, Jonathon Freye, above, and his dad Doug Freye of Plumbers, Pipe Fitters & Service Trades Local 174, spotted the previously undiscovered ship "Interlaken." They then dove on the shipwreck, whose whereabouts had been unknown since 1934.
The Interlaken, in an undated photo. After being converted to a barge, it sunk in Lake Michigan in 1934. Photo: Bowling Green State University