Sheboygan River was I-43 of its day, from fruit to furniture

Echoes of our past
William & Joy Wangemann • for The Review

At the end of every column I request that if anyone has a topic they would like me to look into and write about to contact me. The following column was generated from just such a request. An elderly gentleman (he said he was 85) called me and said he had a memory as a young boy that he and his father during the summer months went to a warehouse near the 8th street bridge and bought fruit. But time has dimmed his memory and he wondered if I knew anything about such a place. I did.

The warehouse he spoke of was located on the north side of the Sheboygan River just east of the 8th Street Bridge and was often referred to as the Sheboygan Fruit dock.

This property was for many years owned by the city. As many may remember in later years the Navel Reserve had training facility at that location along with the patrol craft 880 being moored in the river alongside their building.

But getting back to the fruit dock, during the summer when fruit began to ripen in the orchards of lower Michigan small boats daily would travel across the lake, usually at night, and be back at the crack of dawn with a load of fresh fruit. They returned with their decks piled high with wicker baskets filled with fruit such as apples, grapes, pears, cherries and peaches.

As the boats were unloaded many times their cargo went directly into the waiting wagons of local grocers. Old-timers remember that at times the streets would be clogged with waiting wagons. It must be remembered that in these pre-super market days there were well over 80 “mom and Pop’ stores in the city to fill the grocery needs of neighborhoods.

The Sheboygan River itself has a long rich history. For eons local Indian tribes made their homes along its banks. The river was an endless source of pure water for drinking and cooking along with fish and water fowl but food and water were not the rivers only benefits. It was the I-43 of their day. There was no more convenient means of travel then gliding over its placid waters in a beautiful handcrafted canoe.

With its headwaters above the Sheboygan Marsh the river, which is approximately 81 miles long, meanders through four counties, Fond du Lac, Calumet, Manitowoc and Sheboygan County.

At the City of Sheboygan Falls the river for many years provided water power for industry. As the river flows through Sheboygan it provided a relatively cheap and reliable means of sending the products of the many industries that grew up along the river out to the world.

Old photographs show the harbor jammed with sailing vessels, creating a forest of masts. Not only sailing vessels but steamboats large and small frequented the Sheboygan harbor.

Companies such as the Goodrich Transportation Co. had an office and ticket agency on Pennsylvania Ave just across for today’s present Armory. The Goodrich Company ran a large fleet of fine vessels with dining rooms and staterooms that equaled the finest hotel accommodations of the day. For $1.50 you could travel in luxury and comfort to Chicago. For its day that seemed like a lot of money, but that did include a meal.

Industry along the river was the heart and soul of Sheboygan’s economy from its earliest days. It’s been said that the first product shipped out of the city was a barrel of smoked fish. The peninsula now known for the large Blue Harbor Hotel was once settled by the Groh family under the Homestead Act. While on the peninsula the Groh family established the Sheboygan Tug boat Lines and the Steamboat Hotel. In later years the Groh’s left the peninsula and the Rieboldt and Wolters shipyard was established. Over a period of several years the company built over 200 ships including Milwaukee’s first fireboat.

The largest ship built in the yard was the Helena at 220 feet long. After the ship yard moved away the Reiss Coal Co. acquired the land and eventually occupied the entire peninsula with massive coal piles. The Reiss yards and office building were the home port of the Reiss Steamship Co. that ran a fine fleet of coal carriers.

The boats of the Reiss Steam ship Co. were known throughout the Great Lakes as some of the best kept ships on the lakes. Their shining black and white hulls with large R on the smokestack were instantly recognizable everywhere.

The many furniture factories that once lined the river depended upon the river for shipment of raw materials such as lumber but also shipped out vast quantities of furniture to the world.

In 1888 it was recorded by the harbor master that over 880,000 pieces of furniture were shipping out of the harbor.

It not to difficult to see that the Sheboygan River has always played a very important part in the economy of the County and City of Sheboygan, and will continue to do so far into the future.

If anyone has any comments or suggestions for future columns please feel free to contact me at 920-458-2974 or e-mail me at

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