Courtesy of Anuta Research Center
Two Steamers — Northwest (upper forefront) and Queen City of the Hart fleet — are pictured at the Hart dock in the Oconto River. The Northwest was a sidewheeler. The ships of lore carried passengers, mail and freight on Green Bay and Lake Michigan in the 19th century, The Queen City, a vessel under several different owners, was once owned by the Green Bat and Menominee River Navigation Co., headed by local pioneers like Isaac and Sam Stephenson, Abner Kirby and Jesse Spalding, prominent lumbermen.
Courtesy of Anuta Research Center

Two Steamers — Northwest (upper forefront) and Queen City of the Hart fleet — are pictured at the Hart dock in the Oconto River. The Northwest was a sidewheeler. The ships of lore carried passengers, mail and freight on Green Bay and Lake Michigan in the 19th century, The Queen City, a vessel under several different owners, was once owned by the Green Bat and Menominee River Navigation Co., headed by local pioneers like Isaac and Sam Stephenson, Abner Kirby and Jesse Spalding, prominent lumbermen.

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To better the future, we need to know the past. That’s why the shouts from the dawn and darkness of the past will always shout from history books.

Have you ever thought about how the pathfinders of early times planted their footprints on the banks of the Menominee River and the shores of Green Bay? How they received their food and supplies to keep them here? How did they communicate with the rest of the world before roads, bridges, railroads and truck traffic existed?

A drive down one of our many miles of paved streets to a peaceful spot along our vast and beautiful shorelines — river or bay — is a good place for a history lesson to begin.

Standing and watching, or hearing, the sounds of another time will put you in touch with brute force so finely tuned. Since the 1880s when coal-fired reciprocating steam engines were first heralded as a reliable means of powering ships, these majestic vessels have crisscrossed the Great Lakes transporting everything from coal and grain to iron ore and cement. The speed and efficiency of the lake freighters was unchallenged until the advent of the diesel locomotive engine.

Before them were canoes, rowboats and sail vessels of variety. Days, weeks and months passed for the pathfinders to settle on their preferred harbor, no matter how primitive the conditions of a mooring site.

The Marinette Eagle-Star and Menominee Herald-Leader did a good job of chronicling the history of the early vessels that plied the Great Lakes, the waters of Green Bay and the Menominee River. Fred C. Burke, a Marinette historian in the mid-1940s, applied the files at the Eagle-Star to write a series of columns on early Marinette County. Some of his research work was applied to my research in preparing today’s column.

Mail and passengers were delivered to the M&M port from Green Bay by a small open sloop named the Polly. This was prior to 1857, 162 years ago. A ship named the Martin L. Martin replaced Polly. Also in 1857, the steamboat Fannie Fisk, which was owned by Joel S. Fisk of Fort Howard (Green Bay) began making three regular trips a week between Green Bay and Menominee. When the Civil War erupted in 1861, the federal government assumed ownership of the Fannie Fisk.

The government used the Fannie Fisk for transporting soldiers. It was taken up the Fox River, down the Wisconsin to the Mississippi River, and continued to New Orleans. From there, the Fannie Fisk logged one journey to Matamoras, Texas. On her return she was sent up the Mississippi and Tennessee rivers where she met her fate. The ship, with local connections, was burned by the rebels along with several other vessels.

Prior to the Civil War (1858), John B. Jacobs Jr. acquired the steamer Queen City and put her into action between Green Bay and the Menominee River, running an alternate route with the Fannie Fisk. For two sprouting cities, this was an ideal situation because the connection provided settlers with daily marine transportation between Green Bay and the Menominee River. Two years after the Civil War ended (1865), the Queen City was purchased by the Green Bay and Menominee River Navigation Co., a new business organized in 1867.

Ships like the Polly, Morgan L. Martin, Fannie Fisk and Queen City in primeval times set the stage for marine transportation for early settlers.

Public and private ship service continued to grow in the Menominee River harbor and along the Green Bay shoreline. The timber industry was taking a firm hold and providing hundreds of jobs, from lumberjacks working the thick forests, men moving the logs to saw mills downstream and laborers using teams of horses to move the finished lumber from mill yards to anxious schooners at the mouth of the river and along the bay. Marine transportation at separate harbors in Menominee and Marinette was one of the busiest on the Great Lakes.

The previously mentioned Menominee River Navigation Co. was formed by Isaac Stephenson, Samuel M. Stephenson, Abner Kirby, Jesse Spaulding, F.B. Gardiner, William J. Fisk and Augustus C. Carpenter, all major players in the timber and lumber industry. Gardner, who hailed from Pensaukee, Wis., built the tug boat Union in 1865 and the following year lengthened and fitted it to sail the Great Lakes. The company also owned the Queen City. The two vessels were kept busy moving cargo out and hauling supplies in for the next four navigation seasons.

A mariner by the name of Captain Taylor bought the Queen City in 1871. In the fall of 1875 the famous ship was destroyed by fire in the Green Bay area. Meanwhile, the Union continued to provide valuable sea service between Green Bay and Escanaba under the command of Capt. Thomas Hawley.

By 1863, the Chicago & North Western Railroad had extended its rail line to Fort Howard in Wisconsin. The company also saw a need to enter the boat business. Owners organized a separate company and began building a marine fleet. Its first ships were the Sarah Van Epps and Arrow. In 1871 the railroad stretched its line from the Green Bay area to Marinette, and a year later to Escanaba. Menominee River Navigation discontinued its line of marine transportation in 1873.

There was a time in 1863 when boats were unable to maneuver the Menominee River due to a sand bar at the mouth of the river. Kirby-Carpenter Lumber Co., a giant in the region, constructed a pier on the bay shoreline in the vicinity of the present day tourist-park on 1st Street at 3rd Avenue.

The widely-known Goodrich Lina and its fleet of steamers ran between Chicago and Green Bay in 1869 and stretched its route to the Menominee harbor on a regular schedule. The company had its own ticket agency in Menominee.

I can’t resist illustrating the toughness of the men working in the mills and on the ships when backbreaking work surfaced. Before tugs were built on the river, the lumber sawed at the mills lining the river banks had to be taken out from the mills to the vessels anchored off shore in the deeper waters of the bay upon scows that would haul out to the vessel by men with rope lines that were made fast to the shore and on the vessel. This was a painstaking process and could work in the early spring and fall when the lines were wet, and when they were lifted from the water as the scow progressed, the men’s hands would become numb with the cold from handling the icy ropes.

Until 1871, roughly all of the lumber manufactured on the Menominee River was shipped to market on sailing vessels. It was customary to see 25 sailing vessels at anchor off shore in the bay at one time during that history-making age.

The stories of those rugged men have been told in volumes. Standing and watching, or hearing, the sounds of another time from the many shoreline vantage points they left us is a reminder of how hard they worked to give us what we have today.