Sturgeon Bay's Waterfront History

Sturgeon Bay's Waterfront History (HM2F6I)

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N 44° 49.775', W 87° 22.873'

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Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal

Completion of this waterborne shortcut between Green Bay and Lake Michigan in 1878 is arguably the most important event in the maritime history of the City of Sturgeon Bay and the Door Peninsula as a whole. Officially titled "The Sturgeon Bay and Lake Michigan Ship Canal," the project was the dream of Joseph Harris, Sr. The editor of the local newspaper, Harris began writing of the need to construct a canal connecting Sturgeon Bay to Lake Michigan shortly after his arrival in 1855. He would become known as "the Father of the Sturgeon Bay and Lake Michigan Ship Canal," pressing for a water passage through the sandy ridges east of town.

The completion of the canal reduced the trip distance from the port of Green Bay to Milwaukee or Chicago by more than 150 miles. It also eliminated the dangerous journey through infamous Death's Door passage at the tip of the Door Peninsula.

Photo Captions (left side, middle, then right side)

Joseph Harris Sr.

In addition to providing a shorter, safer route for sailing vessels, Joseph Harris intended to make a profit selling building lots in the future town of "Harrisburg" along the lake end of the canal. After much work, lobbying, and a change in the canal location, a state charter was granted in 1864 to his Sturgeon Bay and Lake Michigan Ship Canal and Harbor Company.



His partners in the venture included then-president of the Chicago and North Western Railway, William B. Ogden. Unfortunately for Harris, the new location was three-quarters of a mile south of his anticipated town. "Harrisburg" never came to be and Harris never realized financial gain on the sale of his property. However, the Sturgeon Bay and Lake Michigan Ship Canal will forever stand as his lasting legacy.


Construction of the canal began on July 8, 1872. The isthmus between Sturgeon Bay and Lake Michigan was heavily forested. The historic photo to the upper left shows the route of the canal being cleared of trees and brush. Note the temporary railway constructed to transport materials in and out of the worksite. The Depression of 1873 held up the work for three years. Construction resumed in 1877 and on June 28, 1878 at 7:30 p.m., the final dirt barrier was removed to connect the waters of Sturgeon Bay and Lake Michigan. In 1879, the three-masted schooner America bound for Chicago with a load of lumber would become the first loaded ship towed through the canal.

It would take another four years to make the 7,400-foot canal suitable for safe, routine passage of the sailing vessels of the 1880s. Steam dredges were used to deepen the canal to navigational depth and pile drivers aboard barges, as seen in the photo on the left, installed and improved the timber all that supported the canal bank. The first full year of operation in 1882 saw 415 ships passing through the canal. Ten years later that number had increased nearly tenfold to 3,949 ships.

During the early years of the canal, a tow charge was levied on ships passing through. Local tug owners provided towing services for the ships using the canal and competition was intense - whoever got to a ship first got the job. Ship owners soon discovered that they could dramatically reduce costs by linking up and being towed through in a group. At times, as many as six sailing ships were joined by towlines for their passage through the narrowest part of the canal.

Profits never really kept up with expenses and in 1893 the private investor group sold all interest in the canal to the United States government and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers assumed maintenance of the canal. The Corps of Engineers expanded the project to include dredging and improvement to the navigation channel traversing Sturgeon Bay. This work stretched from the mouth of the canal on Lake Michigan to Sherwood Point to the west where the waters of Sturgeon Bay open onto Green Bay.

The original canal through the isthmus was 7,400 feet long (2.3 km), 100 feet wide (32.2 m), and 6 feet deep (1.9 m). If the improvements to the entire Sturgeon Bay navigating channel are included, the modern-day "canal" is 7 miles long (11.3 km), 125 feet wide (38m), and 16 1/2 to 21 1/2 feet deep (5 to 6 1/2 m). North and South jetties extend 1,350 feet into Lake Michigan.

Three famous lighthouses mark the course of the canal, including the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal Lighthouse at the eastern entrance on the grounds of Coast Guard Station Sturgeon Bay; the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal North Pierhead Light on end of the north jetty extending into Lake Michigan; and the Sherwood Point Lighthouse in Idlewild, on the far western end, on the southern shore of the outer edge of Sturgeon Bay.

This photo taken from the pilothouse of the lake freighter Paul R. Tregurtha shows the bow of the ship entering the ship canal from Lake Michigan. Because of their immense size and the added safety of modern navigating technology, large freighters no longer utilize the canal routinely. However, each January visitors can enjoy the spectacle of these behemoths, some as long as 1000 feet in length, making their way down the canal and through the Sturgeon Bay bridges as they arrive at Bay Shipbuilding Company for winter layup. This extraordinary sight is repeated in March when the "winter fleet" departs to begin the new shipping season.
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HM NumberHM2F6I
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Year Placed2014
Marker ConditionNo reports yet
Date Added Thursday, March 28th, 2019 at 2:01pm PDT -07:00
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Locationbig map
UTM (WGS84 Datum)16T E 469865 N 4964090
Decimal Degrees44.82958333, -87.38121667
Degrees and Decimal MinutesN 44° 49.775', W 87° 22.873'
Degrees, Minutes and Seconds44° 49' 46.5" N, 87° 22' 52.38" W
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Closest Postal AddressAt or near , ,
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