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by Diane Berry
Manitowoc, Wisconsin offers rich shipping history, sweet charms and a relaxing atmosphere.
Growing Aup as it did on the shores of Lake Michigan where what became known as the Manitowoc River empties into the third largest of the Great Lakes, it’s no surprise that Manitowoc’s history is immersed in maritime tradition. A city of just over 34,000 residents, Manitowoc was named by its first inhabitants after “Manitou,” the great spirit of the waters. Settled in the mid-1800’s the city was largely industrial from its inception and by the 1920’s contained several large companies producing boats, cranes and aluminum goods.
In 1939, at the outbreak of World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt called upon America to rearm its military. Existing shipbuilders could not meet submarine production schedules so President Roosevelt approached Charles D. West, president of the Manitowoc Shipbuilding Company, and requested that his firm build submarines. During the war the Manitowoc Company built 28 Gato-class submarines, including the USS Rasher that sunk the second highest enemy tonnage of any U.S. sub during the war in the Pacific Theater. Only four were lost to enemy troops.
Today the Wisconsin Maritime Museum stands in Manitowoc harbor as a tribute to the courageous crews of these ships and to the men and women of the Manitowoc Company who created them. An actual World War II submarine, the USS Cobia is anchored near the museum for visitors to tour to get an idea of the living and working conditions the crews had to endure in carrying out their tasks.
Designed to resemble a ship, in its more than 60,000 square feet of space the Museum explores the rich maritime history of Wisconsin through interesting and interactive exhibits including a unique collection of model ships and boats, an operating steam engine and displays of historic vessels and marine engines. Visitors can even visit the Museum’s high definition theater to see underwater footage of USS Lagarto, a WWII submarine that was built in Manitowoc and sank during the final weeks of the war. Lagarto was discovered sitting upright in 225 feet of water with a large rupture in the portside bow, apparently from a depth charge.
The museum also tells the story of the
, the famed Christmas Tree Ship that sank in Lake Michigan off the coast of the city of Two Rivers, a few miles from Manitowoc. The ship was a three masted schooner that carried Christmas trees from northern Wisconsin to Chicago each year. The ship was sailing on Lake Michigan in a violent storm in 1912 when it sank, killing all on board. The legacy of the schooner lives on in the Manitowoc/Two Rivers area, with occasional ghost sightings and tourist attractions where its final route is traced.
Manitowoc’s maritime history continues with the Manitowoc Company resuming shipbuilding production after the war. Another local company was producing ships of a different variety but no less seaworthy. Burger Boat Company designs and builds custom motor yachts ranging in size from 75 to 200 feet. Typically, the company launches two to three yachts per year and has four to six projects under construction at any given time.
Henry Burger started Burger Boat in 1863 (during the Civil War). Burger had emigrated from his native Germany with his family at the age of 7. The company underwent name and location changes, but Burger has made a name for itself worldwide as a supreme manufacturer of luxury yachts. With its motto “the pinnacle of quality,” fine craftsmanship is the key, down to the most specialized finish and the minutest detail. The firm employs a large team of expert craftsmen who take pride in producing a vessel of premium quality. Much of the community turns out at the first launch of each new vessel into the Manitowoc River adjacent to the plant. It is an impressive sight to witness a 144-foot luxury yacht tipped into the River to test its seaworthiness on its “maiden voyage.”
In making good use of its access to shipping channels, Manitowoc has an active harbor for receiving and transporting goods. Visitors to the area will notice large piles of coal sitting alongside the harbor where they are deposited by freighters. A large tower sporting the Anheuser-Busch logo receives the large shipments of hops and grains used in the city’s manufacturing plant.
Manitowoc has also created a picturesque harbor to rival the finest New England port city. Storage for large and small vessels is plentiful and provides an attractive setting for visitors to view the lakeshore, the longest continuous view of Lake Michigan from Wisconsin. The Manitowoc Yacht club sits next to the harbor as well, another testament to the city’s maritime heritage.
Continuing on the maritime theme, passengers can book a trip to Michigan across the lake from Manitowoc as well. The SS Badger is the largest passenger-oriented car-ferry service on the Great Lakes. It makes two trips each day from Manitowoc to Ludington, Michigan, from May through September, and can carry 620 passengers and 180 automobiles, buses, RVs and other vehicles. It is also the only steam powered ferry on the great lakes, making the 60-mile trip in approximately four hours. It is the car-ferry that uses the large piles of coal to power its engines that are seen sitting alongside the shipping channel.
Once visitors have sated their curiosity about maritime adventures, sustenance is the key. Beernsten’s Candies can satisfy both the sweet tooth and the mammoth appetite. Joe Beernsten opened the place in 1932 after having been involved in candy making in Green Bay, Chicago and Milwaukee since 1909. The shop stands in the same location it occupied then and features mahogany booths for customers to enjoy their selections.
In addition to the sweet treats and ice cream available, Beernsten’s offers luncheon specials of soups and sandwiches for even the heartiest appetite. It is a special treat to tour the facility when candy is being made, especially the colorful ribbon candies created and sold at Christmas time. The store was family-run until new owners took over in 2003, with the mission of maintaining the same high quality product. A Beernsten still runs a sister store in nearby Cedarburg, Wisconsin.
Manitowoc, Wisconsin has a unique and varied maritime history, unlike most cities of its size in the Midwest. There is much to see and do in the community that can be found nowhere else. Once their curiosity is satisfied, however, most visitors find that it is also a beautiful and relaxing place to enjoy some time away from the rigors of everyday life.