Crossing the Water
When Sturgeon Bay was settled in the 1850's a boat was needed to cross the bay except in winter when people and teams of horses or oxen could cross over the ice. Ferry service was established beginning in 1860, using rowed or winch pulled ferries and later steam powered ferries. Eventually, as both the population and the need for quick travel across the bay increased, bridges became the primary means of crossing the water. Especially since the completion of the Sturgeon Bay and Lake Michigan Canal, which effectively made the northern part of Door County an island, the city's bridges have been absolutely essential to the economy and quality of life of the county's residents and visitors. A total of five bridges have connected various points on each side of the bay and canal, three of which are in use today.
Photo Captions (In chronological order)
Various ferry services operated across Sturgeon Bay beginning in 1860 until the opening of the city's first bridge in 1887. Robert Noble (pictured here with his namesake steam ferry) established the first steam powered ferry in 1874, charging 20 cents for a span of horses or oxen and 5 cent for foot passengers.
Crossing the bay became easier when John D. Leathem and Thomas H. Smith completed the first bridge over the bay in 1887. This wooden toll bridge connected Kentucky
St to Lansing Ave and had a center pivot for the draw. Leathem and Smith, who were two of most influential and successful businessmen of early Sturgeon Bay, were given a 25-year charter to operate the bridge. In winter, once the ice became strong enough, travelers could avoid the toll by crossing over the ice. The bridge was taken over by the city in 1911.
The city's original toll bridge was strengthened in 1893 to accommodate the new railroad entering Sturgeon Bay. The bridge was the only link between the two sides of Sturgeon Bay until 1931 when the Michigan Street Bridge opened for automobile traffic. However, the older bridge remained in use by the railroad until 1968. This first bridge was later removed, leaving just the spur of land jutting into the bay from the west approach, which became Bay View Park.
Tolls became a thing of the past after the opening of the Michigan Street Bridge. The above photo shows the dedication celebration on July 4, 1931 with the original bridge visible in the background. Constructed by the state as the city's first "highway" bridge, the Michigan Street Bridge was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2008 in recognition of its unique Scherzer-type counterweighted rolling lift bascule span.
On October 21, 1960, the Swedish freighter Carlsholm knifed into the draw of the Michigan Street Bridge. The resulting damage prevented the lift span from lowering entirely and put the bridge out of commission for three weeks, stranding many motorists on the "wrong" side of the bay. Car ferries were brought in by the Washington Island Ferry Line to shuttle traffic across the water until a temporary bridge across the Sturgeon Bay and Lake Michigan Ship Canal south of the city was installed. Old-timers still vividly recall this significant event in Sturgeon Bay's transportation history.
Sturgeon Bay's shortest-lived bridge may be its most unique. After the Michigan Street Bridge was closed on October 21, 1960 due to damage from being struck by a freighter, work was rushed to complete a temporary bridge over the canal just to the south of the city. County crews ripped the approaches through the woods and sand ridges, while Peterson Builders, Inc. installed the bridge using in part a barge positioned across the width of the canal. The temporary bridge was completed just nine days after the accident and restored some degree of travel between the two halves of the Door Peninsula. Repairs to the Michigan Street Bridge were completed on November 9, thus ending the need for the barge bridge.
As the amount of auto traffic across the bay increased, it became apparent that another bridge was needed to alleviate the long traffic back-ups resulting from the frequent openings of the Michigan Street Bridge required for boat traffic. The Bayview Bridge was completed by the state in 1978 and is part of the bypass highway around the edge of the city. At 46 feet above the water, this bascule life bridge was constructed high enough that most boats can ass underneath, thereby greatly reducing the number of openings and subsequent inconvenience to motorists.
The Oregon Street Bridge is Sturgeon Bay's newest bridge. It was completed in 2008 and has a lift opening of 200 feet, making it one of the longest draws of any lift bridge in Wisconsin. Separated from the Michigan Street Bridge by just over 700 feet, the large freighters such as the 806-ft Hon. James L. Oberstar shown above do not clear the first bridge before entering the draw of the second bridge.