Harbor of Refuge
As Manitowoc boosters proclaimed, their city was ordained by nature to be a major Lake Michigan port.
"Manitowoc is situated about 170 miles from [the lake's] most southern point and about 190 miles from the straits of Mackinaw, through which its waters mingle with those of Lake Huron… The city is distant only 58 miles from Ludington, lying opposite on the eastern shore... About eight miles north of the straight line connecting these cities the width of the lake is contracted to about fifty miles by two projecting points. [Big Point Sable in Michigan and Rowley's Point northeast of Two Rivers].The protection afforded by the latter has always rendered Manitowoc a favorite harbor of refuge in storms."
To a sailor, especially a 19th-century sailor, having a "harbor of refuge" half way up or down the west side of Lake Michigan was a life and death matter. Years before Ben Jones and company landed at Manitowoc, lake sailors knew they could round Rowley's Point and head southwest to find shelter from storms blowing out of the west, northwest, north and the northeast. Rowley's did not shelter ships from storms blowing from the east or southeast, but neither did any other point on the Wisconsin shore. The waters in front of Manitowoc and Two Rivers were a "harbor of refuge" long before their port facilities were improved.
Getting into the harbor of refuge on the proverbial dark and stormy night was no easy chore. To help ships find their way, the U.S. erected lighthouses at Twin Rivers Point and, in 1875, at Two Rivers. Five years later the Life Saving Service assigned a crew to Two Rivers. Of all the people who ventured on the lake, none were more courageous than the men of the Life Saving Service. They launched their boats into waves that were already sinking larger vessels and rowed out to help. In November 1902, the steamer W.L. Wetmore was foundering in sight of the Two Rivers light. Oliver Pilon, a Two Rivers native, was captain of the station. Under his direction, his men saved the entire crew of the Wetmore and Pilon himself was awarded the Life Saving Medal. The Lake Saving Service stayed at Two Rivers until 1915, when it was replaced by a Coast Guard vessel that could batter its way through storms. Although moved from its original site, the Two Rivers Lighthouse remains in service, because lake sailors still need a harbor of refuge.
"Improvements" to the natural harbors at Manitowoc and Two Rivers came in the form of dredging the river channels and constructing piers and breakwaters to provide shelter from the easterly gales. It took decades of effort from local businesses and governments, plus federal funding provided by Congressman Philetus Sawyer [the king of earmarks in the 1890s] to deepen the rivers and build the docks and breakwaters to accommodate the largest of lake vessels.
That the lake was narrower at Manitowoc than farther south was not all that important until the railroads needed a port for their car ferries. (The "cars" being ferried were railroad cars, not autos.) In their heyday, the car ferries could make two round trips daily from Manitowoc to Ludington. The fact that Manitowoc was not much of a railroad center also helped bring the ferries there. The car ferry lines didn't have to compete for space with other railroads, as they would have at Chicago or Milwaukee. Despite the boosters, the first car ferry out of Manitowoc in 1896 steamed to Frankfort, Michigan, not Ludington. In 1897, the Flint and Pere Marquette Railroad started regular ferry service from Manitowoc to Ludington and the Wisconsin Central followed a few years later. Both these lines built their own landing slips on the south side to access the lake. One is still in use today.
The railroads used car ferries to move freight across the upper Midwest in order to avoid days of delay in the congested Chicago yards. Since the entire car was shipped on the ferry, no time was lost unloading and loading the freight inside. This practice of not "breaking" the load was the precursor of the modern container method of moving freight by sea, rail or semi-trailer.
Because water transport was/is the cheapest and fastest way to move bulk items, Manitowoc became an important port for coal that was loaded onto rail cars and delivered to power plants, factory and home furnaces throughout Wisconsin. Likewise, the city became home to the Manitowoc Portland Cement Company, located right on the river so the clay and lime used to make cement and the finished product could be shipped via the lake.
The Manitowoc River was an integral part of the port. Before turning directly east to empty into the lake, the river oxbows around what was first known as "Luep's Island," later the Peninsula. The low, sandy flatland was the home of shipbuilders and repair shops -- the heart of the industry at Manitowoc. Lake vessels also used the river as an anchorage when winter ice kept them off the lake. In winter the river looked like one large, elongated marine parking lot.
But the river was narrow, which presented Manitowoc shipbuilders with a problem. They could not launch their ships by conventional means. As we all know from the newsreels, new ships are supposed to slide majestically down the "ways" lengthwise, with the stern first into the water, followed gracefully by the bow. Cramped by the narrow river, Manitowoc builders had to be less majestic. They launched their boats sideways. The entire ship crashed into the water at once, raising a great wave as it bobbed over on its side. Just when it looked as if the ship would roll completely over, the wave it generated when it first hit the water rebounded in the narrow channel to push the vessel upright. Launching a ship was always a public event and a crowd usually assembled to watch the big splash -- and to see if this time the boat would roll over. As the ships grew bigger--300, 400, 600 feet -- so did the splash, the wave and the crowd. At the start of the World War II sub building program, more than a few old salts from the blue water Navy were convinced that submarines launched Manitowoc style would turn bottom up in the river, but none did.
Port of Entry
Manitowoc became a "port of entry" in 1854. That meant that foreign ships, i.e. Canadian, could legitimately dock there. Although nowhere near the number who landed at Milwaukee, European immigrants seeking new homes in Wisconsin landed at Manitowoc.
Steamship companies offering regular service to other lake ports started to land in the late 1840s, but it was not until the Goodrich Line inaugurated service in 1856, that Manitowoc received regular service. Although headquartered in Chicago Goodrich kept offices in Manitowoc, commissioned new ships to be built there and maintained and wintered its fleet at its dock in the river.
Always complementary to freight hauling, passenger service gradually diminished in the 20th century. It became more convenient to travel by train, then by auto. In 1970, the Milwaukee Clipper stopped carrying passengers and autos across the lake from Milwaukee. Originally built in 1915 and all but rebuilt to look like an ocean liner in Manitowoc in 1940-41, the Clipper was the last of her kind to serve Milwaukee. In 1990, theS.S. Badger, the last passenger, railcar and auto ferry to cross the lake, stopped sailing between Manitowoc and Ludington. Revived in 1995, the Badger continues to carry autos and people across the lake today.
His ships were fast sailboats, beautiful and—minus the steam engine—economical, but Bates was no purist. In the same year he launched the Challenger, he also produced the Union and the Sunbeam, both side-wheel-driven steamboats for the Goodrich Line.In 1851, William Bates and his crew completed the schoonerChallenger. It is recognized as the first ship of its kind designed for the lake trade. Bates based his design on the ocean-going clipper ships built on the eastern seaboard for the China trade. The clippers were the fastest merchant sailing vessels built and represented the last hurrah of the wind-powered era. Manitowoc became known for the speed and beauty of its schooners and dubbed itself the Clipper Cityin their honor.
That is the point to be remembered about Manitowoc shipbuilding—the variety of the vessels built. It is easy to be taken up with the World War II submarine story, but it is only a portion of the whole. Manitowoc built 28 submarines in about five years and more than a thousand other ships in the 170 years since Joseph Edwards launched the Citizen.