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Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2010

Port of Call

Developing Milwaukee’s harbor

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In the era when Milwaukee was little more than a trading post in the wilderness, nearly everything and everyone traveled by water. The future belonged to settlements with good harbors, and Milwaukee, with the largest bay and deepest river on Lake Michigan’s western shore, was widely recognized as one of the best on the Great Lakes. Forecasting the profitable future of lake commerce, early settlers were quick to take advantage of the frontier town’s potential as a port, and urban development quickly followed.

Milwaukee’s natural bay was 6 miles long and 3 miles wide, providing vessels with relatively decent protection from rough seas. A map of Milwaukee as it appeared in 1835-1836 shows “Kinnekenneck Creek” and the “Menominee River” feeding into the Milwaukee River in its lower reaches, creating a depth of 12 to 18 feet, plenty of room for the largest lake ships. According to John Gurda’s The Making of Milwaukee, 82 ships visited Milwaukee’s port in 1835; just 10 years later the number swelled to 1,000 in a single year.

Compared to the well-developed port facilities out East, though, Milwaukee’s harbor was lacking. Because of a sandbar located at the river’s mouth, passengers and freight had to be transported from ship to shore on a flat-bottomed barge, a dangerous endeavor during inclement weather. Four crew members drowned in 1839 when waves capsized their yawl as they were trying to row back to their ship after a night in town. The following year two sailing ships were driven ashore because the bay didn’t provide the necessary protection from easterly gales.

The citizens of Milwaukee were determined to have a superior harbor, and they wanted the federal government to pay for it. The feds finally authorized $30,000 for harbor improvements in 1843, but it was in a location that seemed, to many Milwaukeeans, senseless. The general public assumed the Army Corps of Engineers would make a “straight cut” through the thinnest point (less than 100 yards) of the narrow, wooded peninsula that separated the Milwaukee River from Lake Michigan. Instead, the Corps dredged a channel at the existing river mouth and built piers. That meant captains would have to navigate an additional mile of meandering river channel upstream—a challenge for steam vessels and almost impossible for sailing ships without a tugboat.

The same year, as an alternative to the river route, a group of businessmen constructed a lake pier at the foot of Huron (now Clybourn) Street that was nearly a quarter-mile long. Because they allowed ships to dock in deep water and unload passengers and cargo, the lucrative piers became Milwaukee’s entry point, even though they were hazardous in bad weather and couldn’t accommodate bulk commodities.

In 1854, supporters of the straight cut finally got their way when the city hired private contractors to dredge a channel 12 feet deep and 260 feet wide at the present harbor entrance. Bolstered by stone-filled wooden piers that extended 1,120 feet into the lake, the channel almost immediately rendered the old piers obsolete.

In 1920 the Common Council approved plans to add an outer harbor on Jones Island (the aforementioned peninsula), and enlarged the area by landfill. In 1929 the Corps of Engineers completed the present outer breakwater wall, creating a safe harbor for water vessels.