Boats and Bridges – Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin

Hey everyone,

Thanks for the comments about last week’s post featuring some interesting towns in the Door County area. I had a lot of fun visiting those towns and crafting a story from the past history and present state of those places. This week, we take a look at another Door County town, Sturgeon Bay. As I mentioned in earlier posts, we served as campground hosts at Potawatomi State Park located within a few miles of Sturgeon Bay so we were there several times, both for shopping and dining but also for just exploring. So here’s my take in words and photos on Sturgeon Bay that is often defined by boats and bridges.Sturgeon Bay-4390

Sturgeon Bay is a small city of with a population of about 9400 people (number varies between 8900 to almost 9500 depending on the source or sign) located in lower Door County, Wisconsin and is the seat of county government. The city was named for the bay that looked like a fish and by historical accounts this bay was alive with large fish, sturgeon. There’s a long history of Native Americans that inhabited the area, often spending the summers near the water and the winters more inland to avoid the harsh gale like winds coming off Lake Michigan. The first settlers arrived in 1850 building a small town on the east side of the bay.

At this point please allow me to digress, the geographical orientation of the bay is more north to south so that’s why now days locals refer to the east or west side of Sturgeon Bay. At one time there were separate settlements on the east (Sturgeon Bay, named for the bay) and the west side, first named Bay View, then changed it’s name to Sawyer, then in 1894 united with the east side into what is now the city of Sturgeon Bay. Got all that? It can be confusing!Sturgeon Bay-5066Sturgeon Bay-5074

Now back to the story. Since it’s beginning, Sturgeon Bay has experienced a lots of ups and downs, at least economically. In the beginning, it was fishing, timber and saw mills with lots of lumber shipped to build Chicago, Detroit and other eastern cities. Then came the quarries of dolomite stone used to rebuild the city of Chicago after it’s famous fire in 1871. Ice was another plentiful commodity that was cut from the Bay and Lake and shipped to Milwaukee and Chicago. The common thread in all these industries were boats and ships. Sturgeon Bay in it’s early days built wooden ships to sail the Great Lakes then transitioning to more modern methods of ship building. For example, during World Wars I and II, there were population surges to build the ships needed for the war effort. It is said that over 8000 workers were employed during WWII in the shipbuilding industry.

Another digression to explain some history. During it’s early history, boats and ships originating in Sturgeon Bay had to travel an extra 150-200 miles to get around the tip of the Door Peninsula through the “Portes des Mores” or more commonly call Death’s Door. This narrow straight links Green Bay to Lake Michigan and is the site of many a ship wreck due to the converging waters making for strong waves and rip tides. This lead to the building of what is known as the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal. Work was started by private investors on the 1.3 mile canal in 1872 and completed in 1880 allowing small craft to pass. In 1890, the channel was deep enough for larger craft. In 1893, the canal was turned over to the federal government and since then has been maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers. Here’s a view of the dredged up canal looking back towards Sturgeon Bay.IMG_2822Sturgeon Bay-4306

At the Lake Michigan entrance to the Ship Canal is the Sturgeon Bay Light located at the Coast Guard Station. Sturgeon Bay-5114.jpg

Just beyond the lighthouse and station is the North Pier. The public is welcome at the Pier but must walk through the Coast Guard Station to access the Pier. Here’s the sign that guides the visitors!IMG_2818

And this is what awaits those willing to make the short jaunt to the Pier.IMG_2813Sturgeon Bay-2089IMG_E2851

Now back to the original story! Currently, the shipbuilding industry in Sturgeon Bay consists of just one company, Bay Shipbuilding who builds and repairs ships and barges. They employ 100’s of workers and are one of the largest employers in Door County. For example, this ship, the American Courage, is in dry dock for refurbishing. This ship was built in 1979 by Bay Shipbuilding and has plied the Great Lakes carrying limestone, coal and iron ore.Sturgeon Bay-4380Sturgeon Bay-1923

Along the waterfront, there are other builders and service providers for pleasure boats and yachts such as the one pictured below. Note the city of east Sturgeon Bay is in the background.Sturgeon Bay-2101

The waterfront also holds a lot of interesting (at least to me!) sites. Here are some tug boats waiting for their next job.Sturgeon Bay-5092IMG_E2825

Nearby is the Coast Guard tug, Mobile Bay. The main job of this boat is for icebreaking missions but also will do search and rescue and homeland security missions when needed.Sturgeon Bay-5070

Further along the waterfront is the Door County Maritime Museum. While I haven’t personally visited the museum (definitely next year though!), it’s said to showcase the area’s long and interesting maritime history. In addition to exhibits, there is an optional tour of a tug boat. Nearby visitors can take a tour on a repurposed Chicago fire boat, Fred A. Busse, a boat built in Sturgeon Bay in 1937.Sturgeon Bay-5086Sturgeon Bay-5083

Also along the waterfront is what looks like an old grain elevator and/or feed mill. While it’s likely that at one time crops were shipped from Sturgeon Bay, it’s been out of use for many years. Apparently, there is a movement underfoot to convert the mill into a historical center. Hope so, it’s in a great location and would add to already rich waterfront attractions.Sturgeon Bay-5089Sturgeon Bay-2099

So far, I mostly talked about the boats and now onto the bridges. After the Ship Canal was completed, upper Door County was effectively cut off from the lower part. The first bridge across Sturgeon Bay was a swinging toll bridge that was upgraded until the early 1930’s and later demolished because it was impeding navigation. The path to the old bridge is now a public park and popular fishing spot.IMG_2826IMG_2820

The Sturgeon Bay Bridge (also known as the Michigan Street Bridge) was opened for traffic in 1931, is still in use and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. To me this is the most picturesque bridge of the three bridges over the Sturgeon Bay. Here are some photos of that bridge.Sturgeon Bay-4395Sturgeon Bay-4385Sturgeon Bay-4383IMG_E2855IMG_2827IMG_2560

During our stay, we did have to wait a few times for the drawbridge to raise and lower for passing boats. Most of the “openings” of the bridges are for pleasure craft as compared to commercial vessels, in 2016 about 3 times as many. The average opening time is 4-5 minutes so it’s pretty efficient, the locals appear to be used to having short delays and plan extra time when traveling across one of the bridges.Sturgeon Bay-4406IMG_2539

There are two other bridges operating over Sturgeon Bay, the Maple-Oregon Street Bridge and the Bayview Bridge. The Bayview was built to “bypass” highways 42 and 57 around the city of Sturgeon Bay making travel to upper Door County much quicker.

I would be derelict if I didn’t mention downtown Sturgeon Bay. It has a lively business district with lots of shopping, very nice restaurants and bars, museums and a thriving arts scene. I’d like to give a shout out to the Door County Social Shop located on Third Avenue in downtown Sturgeon Bay. Not only do they have a physical store with arts and creations by local Door County artists, they also have an online presence at: They publish a very nice publication Door County NewsPixels that  is worth a look. Whenever we stopped in the downtown area, it was always busy with both local residents and tourists. It’s a happening place!Sturgeon Bay-4828Sturgeon Bay-4830Sturgeon Bay-4827

Last of all for those interested in the history of Sturgeon Bay and Door County, I recommend the Door County Library located in Sturgeon Bay with seven branches throughout Door County. The main library is home to a large collection of historical documents and books. In addition, the library houses the Miller Art Museum that helps to foster creative life in Door County.

Hope you enjoyed this visit to Sturgeon Bay. Next week continues my Door County series.

Until next week, travel safe.