Port of Manitowoc


Harbor industry since 1836

Manitowoc’s location on a natural harbor helped the city grow. Shipbuilding took root in the mid-19th century, mostly of various lake schooners and clippers. The establishment of the Manitowoc Dry Dock Company in 1902 led to the building of steel vessels and its famed submarine industry during World War II.

The city’s Great Lakes legacy can still be felt at the Wisconsin Maritime Museum and continued activity in the working harbor.

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Manitowoc River 1706
TranLink History 1705

Shipbuilding History with Rosie the Riveter

Local industries played an important role in wartime efforts during World War II. Manitowoc Shipbuilding shifted focus from surface vessels and began the difficult and important task of constructing much needed submarines. With the help of its newly designated crane – the model 3900 – the company began building the first of 28 submarines. In addition to the thousands of new jobs created for local men, the firm hired 385 women during the war who worked as welders and in the machine shop.

The first ship, the Peto, was launched sideways into the river on April 30, 1942 (an unorthodox procedure that West assured the Navy  would work), and then proceeded under its own power out into Lake Michigan where its equipment was tested and fine tuned.

These ‘Rosie the Riveters’ had their own eating area and locker room and enjoyed wartime wages as high as most of their 7,000 male counterparts. 

Launching of USS ROBALO 9 May 1943, at Manitowoc Shipbuilding Co., Manitowoc, Wis.
Manitowoc Shipbuilding Peninsula
Hammerhead Sub Launch

Mundeowk – "Home of the Good Spirit”

Where the river met the shore of the Great Lake Michigan, and formed the natural harbor that we know as Manitowoc.

The Native American communities of Chippewa, Ottawa, Menominee, and Pottawottomie made their home here. Fish and game were plentiful in the abundant forests and pristine waters of the lake and the river. French explorers were the first Europeans to explore the area in 1673, and the Northwestern Fur Company’s trading post was established in the late 1790s.

The first sawmill began production in 1836 and the Manitowoc River was soon the site of several lumber mills, producing lumber and shingles to be shipped to Chicago and other Lake Michigan ports.

In the mid-1800s, clippers and lake schooners were produced, marking the beginning of Manitowoc’s shipbuilding industry.  In 1843, the harbor needed improvements, but assistance from the government was delayed. Case & Clark constructed a bridge pier and private citizens spearheaded a campaign to raise funds to improve the harbor. Later projects were financed by the municipalities and federal government.  The “Citizen,” built by Captain Edwards was one of over 200 vessels manufactured by local shipyards before the turn of the century.

Greene, Rand and Burger was created in 1873, with Henry Burger at the lead. They built small sailing craft for commercial fishermen. The partnership lasted until Rand’s death in 1885. Then Henry and his nephew George, began a partnership and formed the Burger and Burger Shipyard, and in 1887 they purchased the only dry dock in Manitowoc. Between 1870 and the turn of the century, the Burger name appeared on almost 100 vessels. 

The Manitowoc Dry Dock Company opened its doors in 1902 with the acquisition of the Burger and Burger Shipyards of Manitowoc. Founded by Charles C. West and Elias Gunnel, both of whom were trained in engineering and Shipbuilding in Chicago and Buffalo, respectively, worked together at the Chicago Shipbuilding Company. Manitowoc Dry Dock benefited from the trained labor force in Manitowoc, as well as the ready access to the Wisconsin Central Railroad and the 337-foot graving dock at Burger. In its first 15 years, the Manitowoc Dry Dock continued to build wooden vessels while it began the conversion to steel ship production and repair. The first all-steel vessel, the Maywood, was launched in 1905. In 1910 the company changed its name to Manitowoc Shipbuilding and Dry Dock. In its first 14 years of operation between 1902 and 1916, the busy enterprise built 70 ships. 

During World War 1 the Manitowoc Shipbuilding Company began to build all-steel ships for the U.S. Navy – particularly those used by the U.S. Shipping Board Emergency Fleet Corporation to counteract the disastrous loss of Allied shipping to German submarines. Before the war’s end, the company had constructed more than 30 vessels of 3,500 tons each.

To produce this massive number of vessels, the Manitowoc Shipbuilding Company employed a workforce of more than 2,000 men and women. Workers flocked to the area since wartime wages at the shipyard ranged from $10 to $20 per day. Because local housing was not sufficient for this huge number of employees, a subsidiary of the company began to construct more than 100 homes in the area for workers’ housing. 

After a corporate reorganization in 1920 the company pioneered in the creation of the first self-unloading freighters. In the next decade the company built several large carferries, including the Pere Marquette (1924) and the largest suction dredge boat in the world, the New Jersey (1927). 

Finding the need to diversify after World War I, the Manitowoc Shipbuilding Company ventured into the business of constructing cranes. Its crane building division became a crucial element of the company’s sales and growth after the Great Depression struck in 1929. In the 1930s Manitowoc cranes were purchased and used in Washington DC to help restore the U.S. Capitol dome and to construct the Senate Office building, the National Gallery of Art, the Jefferson Memorial, and the National Archives. 

In 1938 Burger and Burger Shipyard, now under a new generation of ownership, made an unprecedented move in the shipbuilding industry by building a vessel with a steel, rather than wood, hull. The company had constructed  the country’s first all-welded-steel auxiliary ketch – a type of sailing vessel – and named it TAMARIS. Competitors, who doubled the steel-hulled boats ‘tin cans, were soon proved wrong when the new hulls proved to be much stronger than the wooden hulls. 

On January 21, 1960, the Edward L. Ryerson was launched into the ice-filled river at Manitowoc Shipbuilding Company. The Ryerson marked the end of a shipbuilding era as the last freighter built in Manitowoc.

Although the Port of Manitowoc has changed quite a bit since its inception nearly 200 years ago, it remains true to its roots. You will find the hardworking people of Manitowoc building and repairing ships at Burger Boat’s shipyard, ferry service running between Manitowoc and Michigan, and McMullen & Pitz continuing their tradition of marine construction. Today the Port features many thriving new businesses as well, including Broadwind constructing heavy fabrications for many different industries and Trans-Link providing trans-loading and stevedoring services to many area businesses. The Port of Manitowoc proudly contributes to the prosperity of the City of Manitowoc and has a bright future of manufacturing and innovation.