PRESS EDITORIAL: The price of failing to respect Lake Michigan

A photograph made by an Ozaukee Press photographer circa 1958 captured a monstrous wave crashing into the Wisconsin Street end of the west slip of the poorly protected Port Washington harbor, above. The commercial fishery buildings in the photo have been replaced by a condominium and office building. Harbor improvements, including a wave-breaking peninsula of park land, authorized by city officials who understood the importance of Port’s relationship with the lake, now protect property from destructive waves. At a Fish Day celebration in the 1960s, top, a navy vessel attracted a crowd to the north slip of the Port Washington harbor. In the background, one of the abandoned Wisconsin Chair Co. factory buildings still stood at the edge of the harbor. The building was demolished shortly after this photo was taken. The site has remained open as a public space overlooking the marina for decades, but is now slated to be filled with a building called the Blues Factory, which is designed to look somewhat like the factory in this picture.


More than most inland seaports, Port Washington owes respect to Lake Michigan.

The lake has beaten down and lifted up the community in profound and dramatic ways that have shaped Port Washington’s history, yet it is often misunderstood and disrespected.

The contractors hired to design the handsome new gateway to the north breakwater last year failed to respect the lake’s power. Waves driven by a mid-April gale destroyed part of what they built, tossing riprap, railings, steel benches and assorted amenities as though they were plastic toys. Those who misjudged the lake’s oceanlike forces, rather than city taxpayers, should bear the cost of fixing the damage and making the repairs strong enough to stand up to Lake Michigan.

It wasn’t the first time disrespect for the lake caused onshore damage. For years such destruction was routine—including flooding and damage to shore structures at the base of the west slip along Wisconsin Street—thanks to the atrocious design of the harbor built in the 1930s that invited the fury of lake storms into the heart of the city.

The engineers who were responsible respected Wisconsin Electric and shipping companies more than the lake and designed a breakwater system with a harbor entrance that was a gaping maw—easy for huge freighters delivering coal to the new power plant to negotiate, but wide open to lake seas.

Small boats were constantly in peril in the unprotected inner harbor. Commercial fishing vessels survived by dint of the tenacity and ingenuity of owners who devised a system of mooring lines connected to heavy chains laying across the harbor bottom. Recreational boats survived mainly by staying away. Port Washington earned a reputation as having the most dangerous harbor on Lake Michigan, and boaters who respected the lake chose to ride out storms at sea rather than seek shelter in a harbor that offered none.

The construction of the small boat harbor and the marina within it, which opened in 1982, changed all of that. The marine engineers for this project, who created a magnificent refuge guarded by massive stone revetments, obviously respected the power of the lake. The city officials who had the vision and courage to build the marina respected both the power of the lake and its potential to uplift the community’s prosperity and quality of life.

That potential was brilliantly realized some years later when the north slip of the old commercial harbor was transformed into an adjunct to the small boat harbor, perfectly protected by the manmade peninsula that is now an attractive enhancement to the lakefront named Rotary Park. Few ports anywhere can claim a marina as a feature of their downtown. In Port Washington’s case, the downtown marina is not just a safe harbor, but a compelling attraction with its harborwalk, intimacy with the water and splendid views.

The stage was set for this years earlier by elected officials who showed their respect for the lake by reclaiming much of the land around the harbor for the public from industrial owners that had cluttered it with manufacturing buildings. The clearing of harbor land of that unsightly clutter was the genesis of the renaissance of the Port Washington lakefront.

Fast forward to the second decade of the 21st century, and Port Washington finds representatives in the same offices as those visionary officials of yore selling a prominent tract of that public harbor land to a developer as a site for a restaurant and banquet hall in a building that, in a cruel irony, is designed to look somewhat like one of the long demolished factories. The origins of this mistake go back nearly three years, but it is still hard to believe that something so alien to the history of Port Washington’s relationship with Lake Michigan remains a possibility.

Now is the time for elected representatives currently in office to make amends by honoring that history. The project is at what should be a turning point. The developer is on the verge of being in violation of deadlines set by the city. Instead of eliminating the deadlines, as some members of the Common Council want to do, the clause in the developer’s agreement that allows the city to buy back the land should be enforced.

That would be an act of respect for Lake Michigan.


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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
(262) 284-3494


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