Shipbuilding: the pride of Sturgeon Bay
The Wisconsin city's history with boat-building began almost 200 years ago.
STURGEON BAY, Wis. — Northlanders making the trek to Lambeau Field one day would do well to extend their visit and carry on an additional 44 miles north.
That’s where you’ll find Sturgeon Bay and connect to the region’s shipping industry in a whole new way — from the perspective of a place that’s seen its settlers and residents build boats since 1836.
“There was no railroad, so everything was done by schooners,” said Kevin Osgood, executive director of the Door County Maritime Museum. “Schooners could be seen everywhere on the horizon, like we see trucks on the highway today.”
The town of more than 9,600 residents splits the peninsula that is Door County in half horizontally with its shipping canal, giving pleasure boaters and commercial freighters access to Lake Michigan east and Green Bay west of the city.
Picturesque Sturgeon Bay features hillside neighborhoods and bridges over the bay that jackknife to let vessels pass. It’s both exactly what you would expect from a Great Lakes city and charmingly unique at the same time.
On the day the News Tribune visited in March, it was overcast with freshly fallen snow.
Early in its history, settlers leaned on the limestone and timber industries, evolving from wooden schooners to the shipbuilding prowess seen today in the construction of the newest lake freighter, Mark W. Barker, at Fincantieri Bay Shipbuilding.
Interlake Steamship Co.’s Mark W. Barker is only the latest ore boat to come out of the city. Bay Shipbuilding’s office features a wall full of portraits of lake freighters built at the yard. And while Mark W. Barker is the first U.S.-flagged laker built in nearly 40 years, its arrival highlights the age of the rest of the fleet, and portends more business to come.
“Interlake Steamship choosing Fincantieri Bay and Sturgeon Bay was fantastic and shows all sorts of promise for the future,” Osgood said.
The sprawling maritime museum features a 10-story tower with an observational lookout at the top. There’s a restaurant in town that collects law enforcement, firefighter and first responders' patches, which decorate the walls. An Italian eatery features vistas of the bay and is packed with glossy photos of the ships that mean something to the city.
“They embrace their history and want to preserve it,” Osgood said. “North of Sturgeon Bay, you don’t really see national chains of anything. Everything is local business from this point forward. A lot of community feeling and supporting our industry and celebrating it.”
When Fincantieri launched the Mark W. Barker for the first time by filling a dry dock with water, Interlake flew in a bunch of its office staff and the Barker family, including president Mark Barker and his parents, James and Kaye, from the Cleveland area to celebrate.
“We like to celebrate things,” said Chrissy Kadleck, Interlake spokesperson. “It was a spectacular day.”
Once home to four shipyards, there’s only Bay Shipbuilding in town now. It’s by far the city’s largest employer, with 600 employees regularly and 1,000 during winter layup, when lake freighters are idled for repairs.
No longer a port for the shipment of bulk goods and cargoes, Sturgeon Bay has leaned into its history as a ship-building town. In addition to Mark W. Barker, the local yard delivered a natural gas refueling barge late last year, and is currently building two more.
The city's modern shipbuilding efforts escalated during World War II. Sturgeon Bay was turning out a new ship every four days to help the war effort. There was a Sturgeon Bay ship in every theater of conflict in WWII, including the first allied ship to sink at the Battle of Normandy.
The story goes that the captain was watching landing crafts getting beaten by guns, so he turned his vessel, a 170-foot submarine chaser, broadside to absorb the fire.
“Within minutes it was blown out of the water, split in two,” Osgood said. “But it allowed multiple landing craft to get to the beach without being targeted.”
Osgood noted the 1,004-foot Edwin H. Gott, built in Sturgeon Bay, being one of the first lakers to transit the Soo Locks to start the 2022-23 Great Lakes shipping campaign.
“There’s a lot of pride in that,” he said. “That ship was built here, and now it’s one of the first ones out to get the economy rolling again.”
Celebrating that pride is good for business. One day last year, Osgood recalled having to lock the museum doors to outsiders, because there were so many people inside the museum.
“We had far too many people in the building,” he said. “Being a driving destination with a lot of outdoor activities has brought a lot of new people to Door County.”