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Father, sons find a bit of history on Lake Michigan beach

Matthew Deboer 13 Beach Park stands portiwooden bothwashed up shore Illinois Beach State Park. The sectibocame from steam barge SolH.

Matthew Deboer, 13, of Beach Park stands on a portion of the wooden boat that washed up on the shore at Illinois Beach State Park. The section of the boat came from the steam barge Solon H. Johnson which sank on November 24, 1887. Matthew was with his father, Paul, and brother, Ethan, 10, when they discovered the wreckage. | Special for Sun-Times Media

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History of Solon H. Johnson

The Solon H. Johnson was heading from Pentwater, Mich., to Chicago with a load of lumber and towing a scow loaded with white Pentwater bricks when a storm struck on Nov. 24, 1887, and its machinery broke 8 miles south of Kenosha, Wis. A farmer saw the wreck and notified the Kenosha Life Saving Service, who took their gear by train to the site of the wreck.

According to the Underwater Archeology Society of Chicago, they made a heroic effort to reach the Johnson with their life boat, but the high waves and wind forced them to turn back. Next they fired a line to the wreck with their Lyle gun and used a breeches buoy to save all 12 men from the steam barge.

More information on the Johnson and underwater pictures can be found at and Another source is the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum in Michigan at

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Updated: July 16, 2013 1:15AM

What do a steam barge from the 1800s, Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Adeline Geo-Karis Illinois Beach State Park and a father and son taking a leisurely stroll along Lake Michigan near Zion this spring have in common?

A really old boat, specifically, the old steam barge “Solon H. Johnson,” that was built in 1875, and then rebuilt a year later to lengthen the boat from 81 feet long to 106.5 feet long so it could haul more stone and lumber for the building trades.

The barge had eight different owners until it sank on Nov. 24, 1887, near Kenosha, Wis., according to the Underwater Archaeological Society of Chicago.

Paul DeBoer and his sons, Matthew, 11, and Ethan, 10, of Beach Park, like to make trips to the state park near Zion, named posthumously for State Sen. Adeline J. Geo-Karis, who always championed the park, where you can get lost on the nature trails or walk miles of Lake Michigan shoreline.

“We just like to go there every so often,” he said, noting that his oldest likes to look for rocks with fossils or odd shapes along the shoreline.

And that’s what they were doing in early April when they came across something really odd on the shoreline.

“I thought it was a pipe coming out of ComEd (near the shuttered nuclear plant), and then I thought it was part of a pier,” said DeBoer. But once they got close, they quickly surmised it was something very old.

“We stepped it off and it was 37 feet long and 17 feet wide. That’s a pretty good-sized boat, but it looked really old. The spikes looked hand forged and the wood looked like it was hand scraped, not by a machine.

It was like something from the History Channel,” he said.

When Matthew told his friends about the find, they didn’t believe him. “They thought I was joking at first, but I just kept telling them until they believed me,” he said.

Illinois Beach State Park Supt. Saki Villalobos said this isn’t the first time, and probably not the last, that debris from an old shipwreck was washed ashore. They first heard about it around January and they would later learn that divers knew of the wreck for years. The boat had been intact until the remnants of Hurricane Sandy blew through and some subsequent storms tore the boat in two and it originally came ashore at a small beach in the city of Zion.

Then the lake took her back and it resurfaced south of the nuclear plant. Villalobos called the Illinois Department of Natural Resources who in turn contacted the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. Officials tried to come out from Springfield to see the old boat bow, but weather hampered their efforts.

No one was really sure what to do with it, and they were surprised the Underwater Archaeological Society of Chicago had compiled a history of the ship.

“What we learned was that there was a ton of shipwrecks (on the Great Lakes) and this is not all that uncommon,” he said, noting that they learned that an old sub chaser from World War I had come ashore just north of the nuclear plant in 2011.

At first, the archeological society thought the wreckage was the sub chaser resurfacing, but the dimensions were not right and there was no copper on the hull.

A man in Waukegan two years ago found parts of an old ship on the Waukegan beach front and dragged the piece back home.

Springfield officials said that if they could remove it and keep it in a building, they would try and come up to take a look at it, “but there are so many [pieces] no one was sure of the historical or cultural significance of the wreck,” said Villalobos.

“Now every storm that hits, it gets covered by sand. Basically the lake will take it back again,” he said. “But it would have been something interesting to have,” he said, although it was too big for them to display it anywhere and the costs of preserving it were not known.

The IDNR and historical agency do not have any extra funds for that type of project.

But don’t tell Matthew DeBoer, “They should put it in a museum somewhere so everyone can see it,” he said. For now the ship is buried in sand.

“In a couple of months we might see it again,” said Villalobos.

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