Sunken treasure from Port

Family of reknown diver Allen ‘Butch’ Klopp donates priceless collection of 10,000 artifacts he found on shipwrecks to Wisconsin Maritime Museum
Ozaukee Press staff

For decades, an 8-foot-tall anchor from the schooner America and a 15-foot-tall wooden rudder believed to be from the trading schooner Byron — artifacts lifted from the bottom of Lake Michigan by diver Allen “Butch” Klopp — graced the yard of Klopp’s home on South Division Street in Port Washington.

But Monday, a crew from the Wisconsin Maritime Museum removed these pieces, along with a windlass, from the yard under the watchful eye of the Klopp family.

They were the last of roughly 10,000 artifacts that Klopp, who died in 2021, brought up from the bottom of the Great Lakes and his family donated to the Manitowoc museum.

“It’s bittersweet — mostly sweet,” Klopp’s son Jason said as the crew cut the staples holding the anchor in place and delicately lifted it with a crane onto a cradle for transport.

“It’s very rewarding to know it’s going to be taken care of. My dad always wanted it to be seen. I think what we’re doing with the museum makes a lot of sense. In the end, he would have been OK with this.”

Watching the crew work to release the anchor from its base made Klopp’s daughter Nikki Schlapman, who came to Port from her Florida home to watch the last artifacts head to their new home, smile.

“He did this all by himself, and it takes an army to take down what my dad did,” she said. “I think he’d be happy it’s being preserved for future generations.”

Her mother Paula agreed.

“I’m so glad it’s going where people can enjoy it,” she said. “He has so much beautiful stuff.”

For Cathy Green, executive director of the museum, the collection is “an unbelievable thing to be part of.”

“This is really significant. There’s nothing like this anywhere in the world,” she said. “We’re so excited and grateful to have this.

“You don’t want to say it’s a treasure trove, but it is. Not of gold coins but of history.”

Klopp’s artifacts, she said, make up “a huge collection, a chapter from the past that has been hidden for many years that will now come into view for research, for investigating, for people to see.

“Part of the value of a museum is you have those things to be touchstones to the past. I’m so excited to have these physical things.”

Klopp’s collection is so extensive, Green said, that it essentially doubles the museum’s own collection.

“It’s a cross section of materials,” she said. “Everything from a button to an 8-foot anchor and everything in between.”

It took two interns working with the museum’s collections manager the entire summer to inventory the bulk of the collection, she noted.

Jason Klopp said his father, who was a police officer, had a passion for diving and treasure hunting that was ignited when he dove on to the wreck of the Toledo, which sank off Port in 1856.

“He found a four-foot solid gold chain,” Jason said. “When he found that first gold chain, he was thinking treasure. I think that’s what bit him in the beginning.

“Then he started thinking about the people and their lives and what they were going through, and that became his passion. He always talked about the people who last touched the things he found.”

His father, he added, “enjoyed the search as much as the find.”

“He was an adventurous type. He wasn’t afraid of taking risks. He told stories of getting lost inside wrecks,” Jason said.

His father always wanted the collection to be seen by everyone, he added, noting he operated three museums during his lifetime, one in Algoma, another in St. Ignace, Mich., and the Sunken Treasures Maritime Museum in downtown Port.

After Klopp died, his family sought to donate the collection to ensure his wishes were carried out, but it took several years to iron out the details with the museum, Green said.

“We couldn’t just accept these things in to our collection. We needed a plan to deal with them,” she said.

The plan included seeking grants to create a conservation lab and storage area in an off-site facility to ensure the museum can properly stabilize, preserve and conserve the collection, Green said, noting that at times the collection was stored in a bus in Klopp’s back yard, his basement and a pole barn.

“There’s significant conservation work to be done on a lot of it,” she  said.  “There’s going to be years and years of research.”

The museum is also looking at ways to display the pieces, perhaps setting up an area where people can see workers doing preservation work on the items, and new ways of making them available to people, if not in person then digitally, Green said.

While the museum hopes to someday have a gallery and exhibit of Klopp’s collection, Green said, parts of it will likely be displayed in the coming year.

There are several things that make Klopp’s collection unique — the breadth of the collection and the fact he took painstaking care to document where he found everything, then did his best to preserve the artifacts, Green said.

“From an archaeological point of view, it’s extremely helpful,” she said, noting items are tagged with location information such as “five feet off the port rail” and “aft of the wheel” as well as the name of the wreck.

“He was amazing,” she said. “Most of these items, we know which shipwreck they came from, which is invaluable. Otherwise, it would just be a bunch of old stuff — cool old stuff.

These sorts of things would never be found today, Green said, noting many have been salvaged while others have been covered and probably destroyed by zebra and quagga mussels.

Klopp collected the artifacts prior to the passage of the Abandoned Shipwreck Act in 1987, making it illegal to remove items from wrecks, she said.

“Before that was in place, it was the thing to do,” Green said. “It was the culture of the day.”

The fact that Klopp dove to sometimes extreme depths and was able to bring back all the pieces he did is remarkable, she added.

“To dive with air to depths like this was a ballsy thing to do,” she said. “Some of these things, I don’t know how they got them up intact.”

The items in Klopp’s collection include light bulbs that once hung between the masts on the Rouse Simmons, also known as the Christmas Tree Ship.

“They’re huge bulbs with really intricate filaments, and they’re intact,” Green said.

There are also 3,000 items just from the wreck of the Niagara, which sank near Belgium in 1856, killing 60 people, she said, noting the ship is known as “the Titanic of the Great Lakes.”

Her favorite piece is an exquisitely carved figurehead that came from an unknown ship.

“It hits me right in the chest any time I look at it,” she said. “It’s beautiful.”

Klopp’s collection even includes food — a jar of pickles that he injected with vinegar periodically to ensure it remained intact and several crocks of cheese. Jason told her his father once tried it.

“He said it was not good,” Green noted.

As important as acquisition of the Klopp collection is, Green said there is one other aspect of the donation that’s equally notable.

“The family’s going to work with us to try to make connections with other divers to preserve their collections,” she said. “That’s part of the legacy in this collection.”


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