You are here
Prior to European contact, the Manitowoc-Two Rivers area was a lightly-populated backwater more or less in the domain of the Potawatomi people. When the fur trade commenced in the late 1600s, it stayed out of the way. Voyageurs traveling south on the lake bypassed it for Milwaukee and Chicago, while traders bound for the interior and the Mississippi River paddled the Fox-Wisconsin River route via Green Bay.
As the strife, disease and general upheaval of the fur trade descended on their homeland in Illinois and southern Wisconsin, the Potawatomi found refuge in Manitowoc. They welcomed -- at least tolerated -- displaced people from other tribes. In the early 1700s, a community of Chippewa, Ottawa, Potawatomi and other refugees occupied the Lake Michigan shore from Sheboygan north into Door County. For people in need of refuge, it was a very pleasant place.
The land was mostly forested, with white pine and hemlock on the light soil, hard maple and oak on the clay ground, tamarack and aspen in the lowlands. Rising in the uplands east of Lake Winnebago, the rivers were short, narrow and rapids-strewn until they met the lake, where they spread over shallow estuaries, replete with fish, waterfowl and wild rice.
The East and West Twin Rivers met at the lake with room in between for the village that became Two Rivers. Ten miles to the southwest, the largest of the local rivers entered the lake at the point known as Manitowoc or "the place of spirits."
The land where these rivers flowed had everything the Indians needed to live as comfortably as their ancestors had for centuries. In the early 1800s, about seven hundred people inhabited the Manitowoc-Two Rivers locale.
The peace of the region was not disturbed until the fur trader known as Jean Vieau arrived with his family and crew of voyageurs in 1795. The glory days of the trade in the Lakes region had passed and Vieau's overseers at the Northwest Company sent him to scrounge up whatever fur he could find along the Manitowoc. Vieau was hospitably greeted by Waumegesako, chief of the mixed band of Indians living in the place of spirits. It was Waumegesako's misfortune to preside over the demise of his people that Vieau's arrival heralded. The decline of the fur trade, introduced diseases (smallpox, cholera), and the arrival of American settlers brought about the end of the Indian idyll at Manitowoc.
In the very same year that Jean Vieau set up his trading bench at Manitowoc, Benjamin Jones was born in Massachusetts. In 1833, he came west on a lake schooner and landed at Chicago. The village was booming and Jones prospered in a mercantile partnership with his brother William, but he had little faith in the future of the settlement at the tip of the lake.
The Black Hawk War of 1832-33 had raised interest in the territory north of Illinois and Jones thought it was worth more than a look. By 1836, land in the lakeshore counties of the new Wisconsin Territory had been surveyed and offered for sale out of the Green Bay land office. Working with legal descriptions and the best maps they could obtain, the Jones brothers selected 2,000 acres at the mouth of the Manitowoc River and laid down $1.25 per acre cash money to buy it. In short time Benjamin Jones traded real estate in downtown Chicago for his brother's share in the Manitowoc venture.
In the spring of 1836, Jones dispatched a crew of forty workers to clear the Manitowoc site and lay out a city according to the plat he had drawn up in Chicago. Soon after landing, all but five of the crew deserted. Believing that if he wanted it done right, he had to do it himself, Jones arrived with another crew early in 1837. He kept them on the job and they cleared a parcel of ground stretching from Huron Street on the north side of the river, Division street on the south side, and as far west as 14th Street. They staked out streets and lots, built a sawmill on the river, a house for Jones on the high bank nearby and a lodging house he called the National Hotel. A new city was born on the frontier. If he was tempted to rename the site in his own honor, Jones did not succumb. The United States did not need another spot on the map labeled Jonesville, but a Manitowoc "city" it did not yet have.
Jones' new village -- and the return on his investment -- started to grow. After a year Manitowoc had about sixty inhabitants. Upstream from "Manitowoc City,” at the mill site Jacob Conroe called Manitowoc Rapids, another village was developing. It would merge with Jones "City" and Conroe was just as much the founding father of the today's city as Jones.
At the mouth of the Twin Rivers, the Two Rivers settlement was growing around the sawmill of Oliver Longvine. Other village developers built mills at water power sites farther up the streams.
Conroe sold boards to settlers, but he also wanted to ship the output of his sawmill to the nation's largest lumber market in Chicago. To get the boards downstream to the lakefront he asked a Green Bay shipbuilder named Joseph V. Edwards to relocate and assemble a few flat-bottomed scows. Edwards obliged, first for Conroe and then for Jones. With these humblest of work vessels Edwards gave birth to the shipbuilding industry at Manitowoc. Ten years later, in 1847, he built the lake schooner Citizen, and this vessel--instead of the scows--is more suitably remembered as the mother ship of the industry at Manitowoc.
Edwards also set up a fishing operation on the beach at Two Rivers. He and a small crew dropped their first "pond nets" in the waters between Manitowoc and Two Rivers and reportedly hauled out fish enough to fill ten barrels totaling 2,000 pounds. Edwards partnered with a Detroit fisherman named J.P. Clarke and--for a few years at least--tapped the virgin waters to harvest 2,000 barrels of fish a season.
All seemed to be going well until the summer of 1837 turned to fall. Then the first wave of the national economic depression washed over the Wisconsin frontier. Trade died. The sawmills stopped cutting. Settlement halted and many of Manitowoc-Two Rivers’ initial residents were forced to leave.
The villages stagnated in a region that was still a backwater. The lake trade steered south to Milwaukee and Chicago. Green Bay was still the entrepot for inland travel. No one in either city was much interested in traveling cross-country through the woods to Manitowoc. Thanks to the lake, the struggling community maintained its link to Chicago. Merchants there purchased what little Manitowoc's settlers could offer in return for the few consumer items they could afford.
As the Chicago connection illustrates, from its earliest days, Manitowoc looked to the lake. An inland city thinks of itself as the center of a political, social and economic community -- and it usually is. Manitowoc was the "center" for the hinterland arcing around it, but the lake broadened its vision.
Its people shipped out as crew on steamers bound for Buffalo and Duluth. Its docks, busy with passengers from other states and nations, were as important to the city as railroad depots inland. Workers here built ships to carry cargo from Thunder Bay to Buffalo. Local fishermen came to know the price of whitefish in Chicago and of lake trout in Green Bay. Political and business leaders lobbied state and federal governments, not just to "improve" their own harbor, but to widen and broaden the waterways in Minnesota, Michigan and New York. All of this would come later, but the habit of looking to the lake was fixed in the 1830s when only Benjamin Jones, Jacob Conroe and a few score others hunkered down at their new city on the lake.
Nearly a decade passed before the national economy recovered, the pace of migration to Wisconsin Territory quickened and the tide turned at Manitowoc. In 1847, no more than eighty-nine people called Manitowoc home. By 1860, the population crossed the three thousand mark. The "city" -- still officially a village-- had wrested the county seat from Conroe's Manitowoc Rapids and, after a contentious row between the north and south sides, built a new court house on Eighth and Washington .
Industrial activity was based on natural resources. A foundry processed bog ore into iron tools. Loggers cut pine and cedar for the building trades, hemlock bark for the tanneries at Manitowoc and Two Rivers, plus hard maple and oak for ship's timbers, railroad ties and barrel staves and to be burned into ashes for soap. Increasingly, the logs came from settlers slowly but steadily clearing their land for farming. As they developed the hinterland, the farmers made Manitowoc their market center, bringing trade to merchants and professionals who set up shop "downtown."
Fisherman, whose shanties stood on piles over the Manitowoc and on the sand at Two Rivers, hauled loads of whitefish for the local trade, but also to be shipped "up" the lake to Chicago. The Manitowoc port was developing as well, with four piers thrusting out into the waves for shallow-draft schooners and smaller steamboats to take on cargo and off load. In 1859, more than one thousand sail and steam-powered vessels anchored at those piers and filled their holds with nearly thirty million dollars of goods for trade up or down the lakes. The course for both Manitowoc and Two Rivers as specialized manufacturing centers was laid in the 1850s.
They were both well on their way when the Civil War brought grief and pain to patriots, soldiers and their loved ones, as it stimulated the economy.