by Beth Dippel
for The Beacon
The Sheboygan County Historical Research Center’s newest book is Sheboygan, A City Defined by Water. The book chronicles the growth of the settlement from its earliest days, through its growth as a center of ship building and into its years as an immigration hub. Filled with photos and timelines, news articles and drawings, this book is a treasure trove of information.
The Sheboygan River rises in Fond du Lac County in a region west of St. Cloud and south of Mount Calvary, where a large area of marshland marks its headwaters. Flowing through four counties, it passes through St. Cloud, the Sheboygan County Marsh, Kiel, Rockville, Millhome, Franklin, Sheboygan Falls, Kohler, and finally Sheboygan where it enters Lake Michigan. In its meander of about 81 miles, it drops a total of 297 feet in elevation; from 932 feet at St. Cloud to 635 feet at Sheboygan. The most dramatic drop of 233 ft. occurs between Millhome and Sheboygan Falls. As the river falls in elevation, rapids form, and those locations were ideal places to build early dams to harness the power of the river for sawmills, flour mills and other businesses. The fall of the river along with its connection to Lake Michigan make it the focal point of this history, Sheboygan defined by water.
The Growth of a Harbor Town
Growth is never neat, tidy or linear. Rarely is it documented in written form as historians would wish, especially in the 1840s. As a result, Sheboygan’s lakefront and riverfront history is pieced together from stories and documents into a reasonable timeline where dates and stories don’t always agree. Keep that in mind as you read this publication.
Lake traffic, integral to growth in Sheboygan, required infrastructure. Piers, built near the mouth of the Sheboygan River, were some of the first, most important public works projects.
The first pier in Sheboygan was erected in 1841 by Col. John Maynard and Henry H. Conklin at the foot of Center Avenue. It was just the second to be built on the entire western shore of Lake Michigan.
When the first ships arrived in the area, the sandbar at the mouth severely inhibited entrance to the river and any development of the inner harbor. It was a chronic problem.
A contract was awarded for the work February 20, 1852 to Abel Hawley of Milwaukee who was also working on the Milwaukee harbor at the time. The county and village of Sheboygan provided $30,000—$20,000 from the county and $10,000 from the village. The U. S Government added $30,000, providing $60,000 total for the work.
A channel, the width and depth of the river, was cut directly through Kirkland’s Point, in order to straighten out the harbor entrance, and fill the original channel. The cut was made through a low spot in the Point where the river overflowed when the water was high.
A monumental project, the work was performed sometime between 1852 and 1856. It was accomplished by means of a steam dredge, purchased by the city for $6,500.
After the improvement was made, business increased rapidly inside the harbor and upriver with several vessels being built in the harbor during the winter of 1852 and 1853. Activity had increased so much that in 1852, one resident complained that so many people passed through the city that it reminded him of a mining camp with all its dirt and clamor.
Along with the change in the river channel, new piers were built according to the original plan of 1836. The plan provided for parallel piers with the tip of Kirkland point removed. The river channel was straightened, entering Lake Michigan south of Penn Avenue rather than at Center. The material from the removal of the point was utilized to fill an area north of the north pier, which would one day provide a site for the Sheboygan Armory.
Sheboygan lighthouses provided safe passage for early maritime shipping off the western shore of Lake Michigan. A beacon of light has identified the harbor at Sheboygan since 1839, years before the great bulk of immigrants arrived. In that year, the first lighthouse was built on the bluff known as North Point which rises some 50 feet above the shoreline. Below it, the Niagara escarpment, a limestone ridge, projects out into the lake a few hundred feet, at or just above the water line, depending on the level of the lake. It then becomes submerged for another several hundred feet making it a hazard to navigation.
Ship building developed early in the history of Sheboygan, led by the demand for lake transportation. Sheboygan had a population of about 200 when the first vessels were launched. At that time, there was no harbor, and the shipyards, or what passed for them, were located all along both sides of the Sheboygan River.
There was an abundance of lumber available in the area, and much skilled labor available for hire. Over a period of about 50 years, more than 200 ships were built here in Sheboygan.
From the launching of the first ship in 1845 until the closing of the Riebolt & Wolters Shipyard in 1896, when the company moved to Sturgeon Bay, the yards gave employment to hundreds of men and were an important asset to the growing city.
Sheboygan was the main landing point for immigrants for all of eastern Wisconsin. It was the main port for Manitowoc County because the Manitowoc harbor was not open for steamship passenger traffic until 1854. With only two bridge piers and a shallow channel, Manitowoc harbor commerce was limited. The Manitowoc Pilot estimated that the village had lost in the single year, 1850, by not having a harbor, the sum of $150,000. It was not until 1855 that Manitowoc was visited regularly by the Buffalo liners, Lady Elgin, Niagara and Keystone State.
Sheboygan was also the main landing point for emigrants for Fond du Lac and Dodge Counties. Travel by primitive roads was arduous at best, but the distance from Sheboygan to Fond du Lac was half the distance from Milwaukee or Green Bay.
Topics covered in this book include the businesses along the Sheboygan River, including the shipyards and fish shanties, the parade of bridges over the Sheboygan River, the port and growth of the harbor including the use of the region’s first steam shovel, the construction of the piers and breakwater, the variety of lighthouses, the jetties, the development of Broughton Drive, the Yacht Club, the Naval Reserve, and the Life Saving Station. There is also a section on the C. Reiss Coal Company filled with beautiful images of the fleet and the company’s subsidiaries.
The book, filled with photos, is 213 pages. It can be purchased at the Sheboygan County Historical Research Center, 518 Water Street, Sheboygan Falls, Tuesday through Friday from 9-4. Or online at schrc.org/shop. SCHRC also does curbside delivery. Please call 920.467.4667.