Old Settlers Club 1916

Early Milwaukee
Papers from the Archives of the Old Settlers' Club of Milwaukee County
Published by the Club

Water Front and Shipping in the '50s

Read Before the Club July 6th, 1888, by M. A. Boardman.

Source: Early Milwaukee, Papers from the Archives of the Old Settlers' Club of Milwaukee County, Published by the Club, 1916.

Water, whether it be a lake or sea, a river or a brook, and the craft that float thereon, has a fascination for a full-jeweled boy.

The ideal Jack with his curling locks, expansive shirt collar and flowing pants is as attractive to the wonder-eyed lad as the beau ideal of ye gentle savage as pictured by Cooper.

Many an hour and many a day have I spent midst our shipping, and the aroma from pitch and tar is as sweet smelling today as in the days of youth.

Like most boys I had an undefined itching to become a "jolly sailor man," and I was always a good sailor from the shore, even as the boastful baseballist who plays best from the grandstand.

Of course the mariner of today is not the same man he was thirty years ago, so far as our inland seas are concerned. Steam is so far succeeding sail that expert seamen are not required and even the schooner has now so much wire rigging that the man before the mast barely needs to know how to make a splice or run a bow-line, and for this reason it looks as though the projectors of a naval school who have agitated the subject lately are "off their reckoning." What is there to be taught a boy in school about ships? Do our shipmasters sit up nights looking for a clear sky to manipulate their sextant and quadrant to learn their latitude or longitude? Shall the boy of Wisconsin be taught the uses of a marlinspike, or how to figure a logarithm? Hardly; and it looks somewhat like a jest to advocate such a scheme.

My first knowledge of Milwaukee and Milwaukee's nautical affairs was attained in August, 1847, arriving at the old "North Pier" with my elders on the side-wheeler Nile. To follow the subsequent history of this steamer would be to bring up memories of the past and our surroundings of that to me early date. Screw boats were not on the lakes at that time, and we landed at a pier in the lake because the river in its natural state was too small, shallow and winding for good sized boats to ascend.

The little hookers, at this time, warped up the stream, running their line ahead from spile to spile, creeping up the tortuous stream from the mouth to their destination. This mouth was near Bay View on the site now occupied by the Menomonee Iron Company's docks and the stream led up via the present yard of Wolf & Davidson. The steamer Nile went ashore at the foot of Michigan street in 1848, was raised and floated to just about this spot, viz., the foot of Washington street, where the famous yellow warehouse stood. It was intended to repair the steamer, but some malcontented workmen fired her 1850 when she burned at her dock and sank, demoralizing the old yellow house at the same time. She was raised again and was to be metamorphosed into a schooner, but the hull was found warped, and so she was towed up the river to the island just north of Cherry Street bridge, where she was supposed to have reached her final resting place; but not so, for the rains fell and the floods came and a Spring freshet was too much for her and she drifted down into the draw of the Red bridge and proved herself a nuisance, and accordingly she was hauled into the lake and swallowed up. (I have some well-preserved oak from her.)

Skating rinks were unknown and we needed none for we were supplied with good ice on the river to all points from the mouth to the second dam at Humbolt. Now the presence of vessels, the warm contributions from the sewers and the swell from the lake have taken this field almost entirely from us. These same causes with the interference of numerous bridges have robbed us also of our Winter race course. The stretch from Spring Street bridge to Walker's Point was the chief resort for many years, and all classes gathered here for trials of speed.

Spring freshets are among the bygones. Having fewer bridges, more ice and a greater supply of rapidly accumulated water, we then experienced rapid currents, ice gorges, broken bridges and damaged cellars and some battered shipping, but those incidents have passed. The island referred to where the Nile lay is now Cape street from Cherry to Pleasant. The Red bridge is historical. The color of its coat gave it its name. The draw was unlike any other, it being lifted to a perpendicular instead of a floating swing. This was the place where the "bridge war" culminated, and cannon were brought out to shoot or intimidate the enemy who proposed to make the east and west sides of our town a dual city.

The bridges in existence in the early 50's were the Red at Chestnut, and carried across the stream on spiles. A float at Spring street, also one at East Water and Ferry called Walker's Point bridge, and also two stationary ones, at foot of West Water and one at the south end of Kinnickinic avenue, across the creek of same name.

All of the territory south and west of this Menomonee bridge is "made" ground. From Reed street over the old Union depot westward, in 1851 and 1852, not a building existed. In the Menomonee valley where we have so many miles of slips and docks the classic Menomonee silently meandered in an indefinite bed, surrounded by flags and cattails. Norman Richmond's brick paper mill stood near the foot of Second street and in wet weather, water stood over much of the territory from here to the American house, on the site of the present Plankinton house, and the few buildings were approachable at times of flood only by elevated walks. Having told the story so many times I have taught myself to believe that my assertions are true that I have skated from Spring street to the Menomonee.

A short bridge spanned the bayou at Oneida and River streets, and where River street strikes north, was water enough to float the biggest of schooners. This bayon ran north nearly to Juneau avenue and was crossed by a bridge also at the foot of Martin street, for there was a good stretch of solid land between the bayou (River street) and the river proper. Quite an extensive lumber yard occupied this territory west of the bridge. It was run by a man named Englehardt, if I remember correctly. Scores of times I have crossed here to deliver the Evening 'Sconsin and the Commercial Advertiser. About this time Pierce ran for President and in political harangues it was stated that he had once been a printer and it oc-curred to my boyish mind, Why cannot I be President in the proper time, for I am a brevet printer? How nearly my thought has been fulfilled you will know when you are reminded of who filled the chair for four years previous to our Dr. Dadd.

Boylike, in my early rambles, I became familiar with many of the craft plying into this port and in my desire to retain a memory of them I kept a record of their movements in the season of 1854. This marine list I give verbatim with the following facts:

"Port opened March 2nd and closed December 15th. Number of schooners launched, 7. No other vessels built. Number of vessels arrived, 193, which shows an increase of 14 over last season. Each vessel is a different one." In detail these craft were 89 schooners, 26 brigs, 10 barks, 40 props., 17 steamers and 1 sloop.

My old yellow manuscript gives the full list of these ships with the name of their hailing ports and their masters.

You will notice that I called the season open when the first craft left. We didn't wait for the straits to thaw out for we placed considerable stress on the local trade. There were no eastern connections by rail. We have no opening now for our steamers run all Winter.

The brigs, barks, sloops and side-wheel steamers have all gone to their rest and the schooner or steam barge now does the bulk of our work.

I cannot refrain from mentioning some of those old ships for you will be reminded of these jolly good craft as they are brought to mind.

The only sloop that hailed from here was the Ole Bull, Captain Larsen. She was a clinker built boat much like an overgrown double-ender Norwegian fishing boat. She broke from her moorings one gusty night and drifted into the lake and retired to Davy Jones' locker. Only two full-rigged brigs existed, the Robert Burns and the Algonah. They were black chunky craft, in all respects old style. Although not lost here, the Algonah went ashore here on the Third ward beach and laid high enough on the sand for me to walk around her dry-shod after the subsidence of old Michigan. The cause of her going ashore, according to legend, was the regular disappearance of the one candle in a designated shanty in the old Third. A jolly party in the said shanty could not get their "drop of the crater" except they went into the cellar to get at their source of supply, and such was the regularity of their trips below that the brig's master mistook the flashes for a revolving light and thus his misfortune.

Among the schooners are Congress, Captain Doyle; Eliphalet Cramer, Captain West; D. 0. Dickinson, Captain Lewis; Kitty Grant, Captain Johnson; Fred Hill, Captain Adlam, and Norway, Capt. Tate. These three last were of nearly one pattern of a modern cut and were built on the site just north of Wolf & Davidson's. The C. Harrison was another familiar craft to me, and is yet in commission. I saw her when she wedded Neptune. She was the first craft I ever saw launched. She dipped the water, stern first, at the east end of Oneida Street bridge, where the wood yard is now. The next craft I saw introduced to the water was the top sail schooner H. K. White, which slid diagonally into the river from the foot of Fowler street.

So closely united is the history of our marine with the men of those times that I mention a few more vessels. For instance, in my list I find the Josephine Lawrence, Captain Saveland; Lewis Ludington, Captain Mclntyre; Milwaukee Belle, Captain Lewis; Dan Newhall, Captain Waffle; Republic, Captain Cross; J. & A. Stronach, Captain Corbett, and the Napoleon, Bennett, master.

Captain Adlam, of the schooner W. B. Hibbard, died last month [June, 1888]. His craft was one I have on my list.

The Napoleon seems to have outlived all her consorts for she was in commission until last Summer when she went on the beach down the lake. The Republic was the first to adopt the patent double-threaded screw steering wheel. Previous to this steering was done with a tiller or at best with a wheel tackle.

All the three-masted schooners were called barks. The Badger State, Captain Shorts, was the most familiar to me. I saw her baptized in the placid Menomonee just west of Reed street where the sheds of the Western Transportation Company now stand. Many a time I have seen her burgee flying from her peak as she lay at anchor outside waiting for a tug as all the larger vessels had to do; and in referring to the larger class we must bear in mind that ship-ping has changed radically in thirty years. A good sized schooner in 1855 took aboard only 18,000 to 20,000 bushels of grain in contrast now with 60,000 or 70,000 or even 100,000.

Another bark that attracted attention at this time was the Great West, possibly of 500 or 600 tons. At all events she looked big and her owner thought she was immense for she had a steam engine on deck to make sail and break bulk. One more man tried steam. He put a screw in and proposed to do his own towing, but it did not work. You may never have heard of this man, but it was "Old Kirb," and his ship was the Cream City. Although he only intended to drive her in port or in the rivers, by steam, yet I am not so sure but we might call him the father of steam barges. (I am the possessor of her flag, given the Cream City Ball Club, by Captain Fitzgerald, 1870.)

At the head of Wisconsin street the bluff was as high as it yet is at the Juneau statue and on the summit beside the brick light-house was a shanty where hotel runners, glass in hand, watched and waited for the appearance of passenger boats. The iron horse had not reached us and these steamers came with fair regularity and were watched for with interest, especially from below. When they hove in sight and were recognized, these watchmen took to their heels to advise the hotels, which in turn would scurry and bob away to the pier to solicit patronage from home seekers and pilgrims bound for this great unknown country.

Those scenes are all gone now. Huron and Erie streets were the great thoroughfares then and they have improved but little in forty years, for the people who floated up and down those streets to see and do business with these wheezy puffing old steamers have other paths to tread now. Besides these piers the only other notable landing place was at foot of Washington street, where the old yellow warehouse stood. This place was used especially in heavy weather when the swell was too boisterous in the bay.

Referring to these puffy old side-wheelers, let's recall just a few of them who hauled in here in 1854. For instance, the steamer Arctic, Captain Jones; Cleveland, Captain Robinson; Fashion, Captain Newbre; Globe, Captain Pratt; Lady Elgin, Captain Chamber-lain; Pacific, Captain McQueen; Sultana, Captain Appleby, and the Traveler, Newbre, master.

In the propeller line, only one was built in this decade (date 1856), which was the Allegheney. Other screw-boats landing here in the year of my record, viz., 1854, 1 will mention only the Buffalo, Captain Conkey; Bucepludus, Captain Alexander; Dunkirk, Captain Hathaway; Forest City, Captain Pheatt; Granite State, Captain Cadwell; Illinois, Captain Dixon; Milwaukee, Captain Marsden; Pocohontas, Captain Clark, and the Sun, Captain Anderson.

In 1856 we tried the experiment of shipping grain direct to Europe. Laden with wheat the schooner Dean Richmond sailed direct with considerable flourish of trumpets. One or two boats followed in a year or two with grain and products of the forest, but the ventures established no permanent trade.

Another epoch was the arrival of a tow-boat. The tug G. W. Tifft was the pioneer, putting in an appearance about 1853. Frequently I saw her with five or six and even seven little hookers toiling up the undefined course of the old river. She took her own time for sharp competition was yet to come. Soon after this the straight cut was opened, making it much easier for little craft to make port and sail, perhaps, directly to her dock. At this time came those wonderful creations, the steamships Detroit and Milwaukee, to do us duty across the lake, giving us close and comfortable passage across old Michigan. Simultaneously came the blast from an iron horse which had crept up from the south'ard and found a temporary stopping place at the spot now called Bay View, from whence passengers came citywards across the marsh on scows towed by our one all-important tug which landed baggage and passengers at foot of National avenue where the Milwaukee & Chicago Railroad erected a station which was their only one for many years.

Shipbuilding progressed fairly with us, but our facilities for repairs were for many years decidedly limited. Away back in 1847 we had a floating dock and later a marine railway, but the first approved dry dock was made in 1877 by our present ship builders, Wolf & Davidson.

Those were halcyon days, my hearer. Mayhap a clear conscience, a sound stomach and a robust corpus of a lad in his teens has much to do in giving a roseate hue to the mazy past. Perhaps so, but we were not hampered with as many set forms and ceremonies in those good old days. Caste was not as apparent, we were all nearer to being peers, and aside from these reasons who will reproduce our old and immaculate stamping grounds? Where are the fish and fishing, where the sloping grassy banks, where the diving holes and the spring-boards where we could disport unobserved in all hours of the day, up and down either of our rivers or on the lake front? Where are our boating parties and picnics on the limpid stream whose bot-tom could be seen on any clear day? Where are they? Go ask the gray-beard; go ask the sickly streams that smell rank to heaven. Seek your answer in our solid docks, and ask our omnipresent sewer and our contaminated lake and our forbidding sea-walls, and as your mind is of a retrospective bias, remember the old adage: True yesterday, true today, true for tomorrow.