Sheboygan County, Wisconsin Genealogy & History

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An Auspicious Site*

The early history of Sheboygan centers on her location on Lake Michigan and the Sheboygan River. Hundreds of years before the first immigrant arrived, a Native American village thrived at the mouth of the Sheboygan River. From this village, several important trails led west to Lake Winnebago and other locations in the state. [The state of Wisconsin is a creature of European immigration. Its boundaries do not correspond to those of Indian Nations that predated it. -ent-]

The beginnings of the Sheboygan harbor date to 1836 when a government surveyor surveyed the harbor and river and jotted down these notes:

"From the location of this township it will, I think, possess advantages over every other place on the lake (two or three excepted). The Sheboygan River is larger than Chicago -- nearly the same bigness as Milwaukee -- and what distinguishes it from the latter river is that there is no marsh about its mouth. The banks are sufficiently elevated and dry -- affording a beautiful site for a town."

The river then flowed into the lake in the area of the present boat ramps, but a sand bar across the mouth of the river prevented ships from entering it. The shoreline was about two blocks west of its present location.

A local merchant constructed an extensive wooden pier, more than 1200 feet long, in the area of the present-day boat ramps to service shipping. In later years, engineers moved the mouth of the river to its present location to permit easy access to the river.

The lake and Sheboygan's fine harbor contributed much to the growth and prosperity of the city during the mid-1800s. In 1844, the city numbered 77 residents. Three years later, nearly 700 lived here.

Nearly everything Sheboygan needed arrived by way of the lake. The local newspaper, The Evergreen City Times, reported that, in the year 1857, local merchants owned 17 sailing vessels that sailed out of Sheboygan. Other craft called at Sheboygan: 312 steamers, 164 propeller-driven ships, and 288 sailing vessels. One could often see dozens of ships loading and unloading cargo of all types in the Sheboygan harbor.

Because of Sheboygan's central location on the western shore of Lake Michigan, thousands of immigrants arrived here by steamer. Many were farmers heading west into the rich farmlands of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and the Dakotas.

Several shipyards thrived along the Sheboygan River due to an abundant timber supply in the area. Hundreds of skilled laborers built both steamers and sailing vessels in Sheboygan's shipyards.

The 1920s and 1930s saw a steady decline in lake traffic as rail service and highways improved. The white winged schooners and clanking steamers disappeared, and, by the 1950s, the harbor and river lay idle. Only a few pleasure craft, fish tugs, and an occasional lake freighter used the harbor.

After the planting of the Coho Salmon and other sport fish in the Great Lakes, the sport fishing industry mushroomed, and the harbor and river were revitalized. Today the Sheboygan River and harbor are again busy centers of activity.

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