Sheboygan County, Wisconsin Genealogy & History

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The Sheboygan River

By Bill Wangemann,City of Sheboygan Historian, 1995

Native Americans, namely the Potawatomi, Chippewa, Ottawa, Winnebago, and some Menominee, lived along the banks of the Sheboygan River for thousands of years. The Sheboygan River provided a water pathway from the Sheboygan Marsh through the dense forests to Lake Michigan for the Indians.

From the earliest times to the present, the Sheboygan River has been the lifeblood of Sheboygan county. The river has supplied transportation, fish, and, in the early days, ice for keeping foods fresh. Her swift- flowing waters have powered sawmills, woolen mills, and gristmills.

At one time or another, at least seven different shipyards flourished along her forest-lined banks. These yards turned out every kind of ship from graceful schooners to clanking steamers (some over 200 feet long) and even a Milwaukee fireboat. The Sheboygan shipyards provided work for hundreds of skilled craftsmen and shipyard workers.

One of the most important yards was the Rieboldt and Walters yard location in what is now the Reiss Coal yards. Over 200 hundred ships were constructed in this yard. One of the largest was the steamer Helena which was over 200 feet in length.

Just west of the 8th Street bridge on the south side of the river, the Huntley Shipyards was located. A Sheboygan newspaper article from the summer of 1871 stated that the city declared a holiday when the 140-foot tug Bismark was launched. Stores and business closed. Workmen were given the day off. Hundreds of interested spectators lined the banks for the great event.

Support industries such as warehouses, repair wharves, ship chandlers, and grain elevators all supplied work and income to hundreds of Sheboygan's residents. At any time, a dozen or more schooners could be seen unloading cargo of all kinds, some as far upriver as north 14th Street. Beautiful passenger ships with names now forgotten arrived in our harbor daily to load and unload passengers by the hundreds.

The river was home to Sheboygan's fishing fleet, wind-powered at first, then steam-driven, and finally motorized. Daily, they went out (and still do) in all kinds of weather and at all times of the year. Their catch was dried, smoked, salted, and shipped to the East-Coast market.

In the late 1940's and the early 1950's, activity on the river declined to only an occasional lake carrier delivering coal to Sheboygan and the fish tugs chugging up and down the river on their daily runs out to attend to their nets.

In the late 1950's and early 1960's, the alewives, a small ocean fish, entered the Great Lakes through the St. Lawrence Seaway. What at first seemed a curse, turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The alewives multiplied by the millions, schooling up in large swarms that, from the air, looked like great silver ships on the surface of the lake. What was much worse was that, in mid-summer and early fall, there was a gigantic die-off of the fish. Dead alewives drifted ashore by the ton to lie on the beach and rot in the summer sun. The stench made the beaches and shoreline uninhabitable. In the early 1960's, the Wisconsin DNR experimented with planting Coho Salmon, Chinook Salmon, and King Salmon in Lake Michigan to determine if these large fish would feed off the alewives. The experiment was wildly successful, and a great sport-fishing industry grew up on the Great Lakes.

Today, charter boats by the dozens operate out of Sheboygan, taking eager anglers from throughout the Midwest out into the lake to catch the mighty salmon some in excess of 50 pounds.

The river is again center of recreation and commerce, maybe even greater than it enjoyed in the mid 1800's and the early part of this century.

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