shipbuilding in Wisconsin | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Shipbuilding in Wisconsin

shipbuilding in Wisconsin | Wisconsin Historical Society
Dictionary of Wisconsin History.


Shipping made invaluable contributions to the development of 19th century Wisconsin, bringing people, goods, and other products to the frontier. Within a few years, shipping also made it possible to export Wisconsin's rich lumber, grain, and other resources. Fishing boats, lighters, and scows that transferred good and lumber from shore to sailing schooners were the first types of boats built in commercial shipyards in Wisconsin. Wisconsin's eastern shoreline offered the two most important assets to shipbuilding operations: protective lakefront harbors and abundant timber resources.

Milwaukee and Manitowoc were home to the first shipyards in Wisconsin, opening in the mid-1830s.  The first large vessel from Milwaukee shipyards was launched in 1837.  Manitowoc also developed into a major shipbuilding center. Between 1847 and 1900, 26 different firms operated at one time or another, building 204 ships by hand. William Bates designed and built the first vessel specifically constructed to handle the vagaries of Great Lakes travel in 1851: a design that soon became the accepted standard. Shipbuilding emerged in Sturgeon Bay as an economic necessity in the mid-19th century because the area had few major roadways and no substantial railroad connections. By the 1870s, steam power began to replace sailing ships. Manitowoc produced its first steamer in 1861 and by 1900, the wooden sailing ship was a thing of the past. The first steamships operating in Wisconsin were actually constructed for inland use. In the 1840s, steampowered boats traveled the Mississippi and Wolf-Fox-Wisconsin River waterways. Iron and steel ships became standard in the late 19th century and Manitowoc, Milwaukee, and Superior became major centers of steel shipbuilding.

The once isolated community of Superior became a major transshipment point for lake trade and by 1900, two-thirds of the new ships being built in the upper Great Lakes were designed and constructed in Superior. The two World Wars proved a tremendous boon to the industry in Wisconsin, as thousands of workers were brought in to produce ships and boats for the war effort.  Shipbuilding declined after WWII because of rising labor and material costs coupled with a general decline in demand.  The Manitowoc Corporation remains the largest shipbuilding concern in the state. Shipbuilding also supported a number of accompanying businesses including sail making, cordage and twine production plants, metal fabrication, and foundries.

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