The Milwaukee River Last Gasp Run. By Judy and Randy Wagner and John Baas

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Judy, Randy and bob clearly having a good time

As woody boaters we love plying the placid ponds and lakes where wild creatures live. In Wisconsin we call it, “Lake Country”. Lake Country exists all over the country. But some of the best woody boatin’ can be had in the heart of the city. For us, what may be our “last gasp” ride, that city is Milwaukee. And no, Milwaukee is not in Minnesota!
Three rivers meet here. Century Boats were born here. Ole and Bess Evinrude built an empire here. And, yeah, they made some beer here, too; still do…more on that later. But on this crisp autumn Sunday, the river they named the city after was our “Lake Country”.We live just 30 miles from downtown Milwaukee. My wife Pam and our friend Robert hitched up the 1955 Correct Craft Atom Skier and were joined by our neighbors, Judy and Randy Wagner with their 1946 Higgins Sport Speedster Utility. Putting in south of the city at the South Shore Yacht Club, we head north along the western shore of Lake Michigan. The big lake is smooth as glass. Very rare conditions and perfect for a 14.5’ wooden ski boat.

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Closing in on the city Pam gives The Wave

Our first “float by” is the the Discovery World Museum and the Dennis Sullivan schooner. A public dock allows boaters access to Discovery World, a science and technology learning center you can learn more about here: Discovering Discovery World Museum

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Docked at Discovery World is the awesome Dennis Sullivan Great Lakes Schooner.

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The Atom Skier Takes on the Dennis Sullivan

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4,597 Sq. Ft. of sail and a crew of 10

As the world’s only recreation of a 19th century Great Lakes Schooner, this all wood tallship serves as a floating classroom dedicated to environmental study of the Great Lakes. Want more? You can learn what a mizzen mast is here: Also on the lakefront is the Milwaukee Art Museum. Santiago Calatrava, the Spanish sculptor and architect designed this cool addition to the museum. The wings are sun shades and will automatically close when the wind is in excess of 23mph.

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Santiago Calitrava’s first U.S. project The wings span 217 feet, weigh 90 tons and takes 3.5 minutes to open or close.

We head up river inland past rows of converted warehouses. Upscale condos now occupy the storage caverns of the industries of old.

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Luxury condos on the Milwaukee River Screen Shot 2015-10-27 at 9.40.57 PM

The Atom Skier winds through the urban canyon

Here is where three rivers, the Kinnickinnic from the south, the Menomonee from the west and the Milwaukee from the north flow into Lake Michigan. All three rivers are navigable for many miles and offer numerous opportunities to tie up, shop, eat, drink or just mingle with the friendly city folk who ask endless questions about the “cool old boats”. Our first stop was at the Milwaukee Ale House.

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The Milwaukee Ale House. Brews beers for what ales ya!

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Captain Randy, Robert and Judy board Higgie after lunch

After a hearty Bloody Mary (or two) and a tasty lunch, we continue up river. It’s truly amazing how different a city you’ve known all your life looks from the perspective of the river.

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Milwaukee City Hall. Remember the open from Happy Days?

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Warehouse to condo next to old world factory

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The Harp. Famous Irish bar in the shadow of the Milwaukee School of Engineering

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Who knew there was a river behind those tall buildings?

This was the perspective from which Solomon Juneau viewed the area when he, the first white settler, met the many tribes of Native Americans already here. Later, Germans and Poles arrived. The Usinger family still makes what many believe is the world’s finest sausage here.

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Usinger’s Sausage. World famous since 1880 Schlitz and Pabst are gone. Miller is about to be swallowed up by Bud. But up and down the river, many micro brewers and brew pubs tempt boaters to tie up and tie one on.

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Just one of many micro brewers and brew pubs ready to quench a Woody Boater’s thirst

That’s when you need the designated captain….

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Captain Pam takes the helm of the Atom Skier!

Heading back to the boat ramp we open ‘em up on The Big Lake!

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The Higgins at speed in the big lake. I know, should have taken the shot from the starboard side! Our ACBS chapter, Glacier Lakes, hosts a River Run every summer. About a dozen or so woody boaters hit the river and its watering holes for a day of fun and camaraderie. Like a Harley group ride on the water!

Over the past two decades, Milwaukee civic leaders recognized the value of the Milwaukee River System by developing The River Walk. Both sides of the river are pedestrian friendly with parks, shops, condos and restaurants. Also included are numerous public docks for boaters. And just around the corner, Lake Michigan beckons. Yeah, I know. I need a bigger boat for that.

Last gasp? Let me check the forecast.

20 replies
  1. Troy in ANE
    Troy in ANE says:

    That looks like some GREAT boating!

    I wonder if Usinger’s has any special advertising pictures for their famous sausage?

  2. Al Benton
    Al Benton says:

    I have been on the rivers in Chicago and enjoyed boating between their sky scrapers, but had no idea that Milwaukee offered this sort of boating opportunities. My bucket list just grew longer this morning. Great Last Gasp!

  3. Mary Willis
    Mary Willis says:

    Great article! Good pictures! Looks like a great time, calm waters and sunshine. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Grandpa Bob
    Grandpa Bob says:

    I wanna do that Summer Cruise in Torch Song. I’ll monitor the Glacier Lakes Website for the 2016 date.

  5. Alex
    Alex says:

    Very interesting seeing the rebirth of Milwaukee by water. I’ve never had the pleasure of a boat ride in a city. Other than the Staten Island Ferry, which I highly recommend and which, btw, carries 22 million people a year (70,000 passengers per weekday). I know Milwaukee, Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, and many other cities offer such opportunities. Someday perhaps. By night it must be especially cool. Thanks for the story and cool photos. The contrast between urban chic remodel architecture and classic boats was striking.

    • Cobourg Kid
      Cobourg Kid says:

      Don’t forget Ottawa Alex. The Rideau Waterway meanders through the heart of the city and provides an Olmstead like oasis for those who want to grab a tour boat and avoid the political hub-bub and unusually bad drivers.

  6. Wilson
    Wilson says:

    Like Al, I knew Chicago had a downtown river like this but had no idea Milwaukee had one too.

    And the Staten Island Ferry, everybody needs to ride that one….and it’s free too.

  7. John Rothert
    John Rothert says:

    Wow! Never knew of all that city scape boating!
    I ought to figure out how to post on this site a trip in the Argentine runabout up to the great new venues and sights in downtown Richmond.

    John in Va.

  8. Jack Schneiberg
    Jack Schneiberg says:

    Just up the Kinnikinnic from the joining of the 3 rivers is the site of the original Century Boat Company. Born in 1926 at 333 Beecher Street, the Century started by manufacturing small outboard racing boats and used the rivers and the lake to test the boats. Unfortunately the original factory is long gone – but you can kinda’ feel historical spirit in the when you get near.

  9. Cobourg Kid
    Cobourg Kid says:

    Judy , Randy and John thanks for introducing us to the Schooner Dennis Sullivan. I had been under the illusion that all of those once proud workhorses of the Great lakes had long ago been consigned to Davy Jones Locker.. and forgotten.

    Fact is that many of those majestic vessels ultimately met unseemly ends. For several years in the 1930s the City of Toronto used these once proud vessels to celebrate the July first (now Canada Day) Holiday.

    In 1931 the commercial schooner JULIA B. MERRILL was set on fire as a public spectacle . The circus was repeated again in 1933 when 250,000 citizens converged on the waterfront to see the LYMAN M DAVIS , the last remaining commercial schooner on the lakes, now stuffed full with all means of incendiaries and fuel oil, set aflame .

    CH Snider, editor of the Toronto Telegram later described the Davis’s Viking funeral with disgust. He wrote:

    “Even the most thoughtless of the watchers saw in the sinking vessel something more than the destruction of an inanimate thing. They had a feeling that out in the centre of the oil fed flames, the bursting bombs and roaring rockets, a personality, and what, until then, had been a living memory of inland sailing fleets, was quickly dying.”

    It would be very cool to see the Sullivan on lake Ontario and so much more so if she were to sail into my home port in Cobourg, a harbour who’s Warf was once jammed with large merchant schooners, heading every which way on the big lakes.

    Photo of Julia B Merrill courtesy of Bowling Green University

  10. Mr. Andreas Jordahl Rhude
    Mr. Andreas Jordahl Rhude says:

    Cool stuff. I want to do that city boat cruise some time.

    Cobourg Kid – The SV Denis Sullivan is not an OLD ship. It is a new reproduction. Well, it’s sorta old now – launched about the year 2000. We made a new glued laminated timber mast for her earlier this year.

    Alex – the Staten Island ferries were built by Marinette Marine Corp. at Marinette, WI a few years ago. The Thompson Antique & Classic Boat Rally takes place just up river for the shipyard and one of the ferries was under construction during a Rally a few years ago.


    • Cobourg Kid
      Cobourg Kid says:

      Thanks Andreas, and sorry to
      Imply it was original , (john mentioned it wasn’t) but reproduction or not it’s wonderful to know that there is a true example of the vanished breed currently plying the big lakes

  11. MikeM
    MikeM says:

    Here’s a couple shots from our “staged” last gasp in Portland last weekend. Staged only because we’re not done yet…..

  12. Chris B.
    Chris B. says:

    super sites. i had a great time in Chicago on the river and i am sure this would be just as fun. its a very different trip then boat houses, rocks a trees. Yet another destination for a road trip.

  13. floyd r turbo
    floyd r turbo says:

    Thats just an amazing shot used in the header and downtown looks like a great destination for boaters Can’t believe its not been covered until now. Don’t forget about some other downtown watery destinations, San Antonio and the Landing in Jacksonville, Florida. The Landing will get quite a workout this weekend during the Florida/Georgia football game Saturday.

  14. John Baas
    John Baas says:

    I agree, Floyd. Gotta save it. Thanks for the nice comments, everyone. Hope you all can visit someday or find a nice river with a city to explore.


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