A Home for the S.S. Milwaukee Clipper?

B&W photo pf a white car next to a large white and grey boat.
Passengers and automobiles line up to board the S.S. Milwaukee Clipper.

Photo courtesy of the S.S. Milwaukee Clipper Preservation, Inc.

Many of our region’s National Historic Landmark (NHL) owners and stewards rely on the tourism industry to secure the financial support and public interest necessary to ensure the long-term survival of their irreplaceable resources. While this may be challenge enough for any organization, for the members of S.S. Milwaukee Clipper Preservation, Inc., there is an even more pressing and immediate need: to secure a permanent home for their historic Great Lakes auto/passenger ferry. This year the non-profit, all-volunteer organization is negotiating with Muskegon County, Michigan, commissioners to locate the Clipper at Heritage Landing in downtown Muskegon. The location may be the last option for the Milwaukee Clipper, which has occupied a number of locations, under various ownerships, since she ceased operations as a cross-lake steamer ferry in 1970.

Built in 1904 and substantially rebuilt in 1940, the S.S. Milwaukee Clipper is the oldest U.S. passenger steamship on the Great Lakes. Milwaukee Clipper was built as Juanita by the American Shipbuilding Company for the Anchor Line of the Erie and Western Transportation Company. Before the days of unopenable airline packaged peanuts, constricted leg room, armrest elbow battles, and fears of over-burdened overhead compartments, railroad and steamboat service provided comfortable transportation options for cross-country travel in the upper Midwest. For savvy and well-heeled travelers, the steamer Juanita offered the epitome of first-class Great Lakes coastal maritime travel between Buffalo, New York, and Duluth, Minnesota. The Juanita boasted a grand oak staircase, mahogany-trimmed parlors, a music room and a writing room; and a main dining room. Below decks, state-of-the-art quadruple-expansion engines powered the 361-foot riveted steel hull, propelling the vessel at a top speed of 18 knots. Although passage of the anti-monopoly 1915 Panama Canal Act forced railroads to divest of their company fleets, travel aboard the Juanita continued through the 1930s under the ownership of the Great Lakes Transit Corporation.

The vessel went out of service following new regulations for shipboard fire safety in the wake of the 1934 Morrow Castle disaster, until it was sold in 1940 and rebuilt into a safer and more modern-appearing vessel. The engines were converted to operate on fuel oil rather than coal, and the superstructure lowered one deck.
Included in the extensive conversion was the sweeping Streamline Art Moderne styling, an all new steel upper works, and a new name, Milwaukee Clipper. Interior modifications included installation of a heavy-duty cargo lift to facilitate the loading and stowage of up to 120 automobiles. For passengers, the Simmons Mattress Company built Pullman-like dayberths in the midships section. New amenities included a dance hall, bar, movie theater, casino, soda fountain, children’s nursery, and cafeteria. Tile flooring decorated with the ship’s silhouette welcomed passengers in a new main lounge. Tubular aluminum furniture built by the highly influential Warren McArthur furniture company followed the same pattern as used for the flagship of the American merchant marine, the S.S. America. Above the grand stairway was painted a two-deck-high wall mural of the routes served by the vessel. Glass panels, chrome and mirrors reflected the bright light produced by “lumaline” incandescent lamps and indirect wall fixtures.

The Milwaukee Clipper began service between Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Muskegon on June 3, 1941. According to Dr. Ray Hilt, S.S. Milwaukee Clipper Preservation, Inc. Vice President and Curator, cross-lake time took seven hours one way using three of four boilers. On all four, it took six hours round trip. Cost per person in the 1950s was $3.33 and $8.00 extra for an automobile. The Milwaukee Clipper continued in service until 1970. From 1970-1977 she remained at Muskegon, then was purchased by the Illinois Steamship Company and towed to Wisconsin for repair work. Because the new owner was unable to secure certification to carry passengers on cruises, the Milwaukee Clipper was subsequently moved to Navy Pier in Chicago, to serve as a restaurant, night club, and floating museum, and renamed S.S. Clipper. During this period the Clipper received National Register of Historic Places and National Historic Landmark designations (1983 and 1989 respectively), then moved in 1990 to Hammond, Indiana, renamed back to Milwaukee Clipper, and served as the centerpiece of a large marina. Six years later the Clipper was offered for sale to make room for a new casino boat. In 1997 the current organization purchased the vessel and returned it to Muskegon.
Large grey, white, and red boat in the water.
A view of the S.S. Milwaukee Clipper as it appears today.

Photo courtesy of S.S. Milwaukee Clipper Preservation, Inc.

Since its return to Muksegon, S.S. Milwaukee Clipper Preservation, Inc., has undertaken an enormous effort to return the vessel to its historic appearance, while addressing current building safety codes. Dr. Hilt notes that the restoration steadily progresses, and “the interior looks very much like it did when it was running. The valuable and expensive Warren McArthur furniture, built for the ship, is to be seen everywhere.” Now a floating museum, the ship was opened for tours in 2000, and has received national attention. On the anniversary of her 100th birthday, the Steamship Historical Society of America honored Milwaukee Clipper as “Ship of the Year” in 2004. She was honored again in 2013 at Steamship Historical Society of America's (SSHSA) “Shiposium II” in Longbeach, California. Although owned by an organization specifically dedicated to preserving this NHL, and to educating the public about its importance to Great Lakes maritime history, the Milwaukee Clipper faced an uncertain future. It has been temporarily docked at the Grand Trunk Railroad dock on Muskegon Lake, in the community’s Lakeside Business district. This lack of a permanent location has impacted the organization’s ability to obtain grant funding.

There has also been lack of visibility and access to the ship, and the owner of the dock, a marine transportation company, has plans to make use of the facility for its own operations. Over several years S.S. Milwaukee Clipper Preservation, Inc. attempted without success to obtain a new location in the Muskegon area. More recently, the organization proposed to moor the vessel two miles east of its current location, along “Heritage Landing”—a county-owned park situated on a peninsula in downtown Muskegon that is a popular venue for summer festivals and events. It would be a mutually-beneficial location for both the city and the NHL, as S.S. Milwaukee Clipper Preservation, Inc. President T.J. Parker noted in 2011. The presence of the NHL in this location could both increase tourist visitation to the community and educate the public about the significance of this representative of Great Lakes maritime travel. Such benefit has been acknowledged by a number of letters of support written by Muskegon downtown businesses, Heritage Landing festival organizers, tourism promoters, other local historic ship attractions, and historic preservationists; although some city residents have objected. Last year, the Muskegon County commissioners agreed to a staff recommendation to have engineers complete a feasibility study for the move. The county also requested that S.S. Milwaukee Clipper Preservation, Inc., prepare a business plan, and meet with residents in the affected neighborhood.

This summer, the organization will meet with the county commissioners to present their proposal for a location on the west side of the festival grounds. Should the county approve the move, however, there would still be much work to be done, Dr. Hilt notes. “We would be required to fund dockside changes, there is some seawall work, and of course pilings and bollards to secure the ship to shore. We would also have to bring in power and water and sewer, but these are close by. Another item we are required to have at a permanent site is a tower to get people off the upper decks in case of a fire on an all steel ship.” Additional information can be found at www.milwaukeeclipper.com.
Originally published in "Exceptional Places" Vol. 8, 2013, a newsletter of the Division of Cultural Resources, Midwest Region. Written by Dena Sanford.