Long a dingy repository for fossil fuel, the We Energies coal dock is now Coal Dock Park, a sprawling green space that offers spectacular views and unrivaled public access to Port Washington’s lakefront
More than 10 years in the making, Coal Dock Park opened last Thursday.
Gone are the massive black mountain of coal where white gulls perched, the skeletal blue coal bridge and the huge freighters that docked in the west slip to fuel the power plant.
In their place is a calm, soothing peninsula filled with green grass and dotted with 150 trees. The rail on which the former coal bridge moved as it unloaded the fuel from ships has now been transformed into a long bench along the north side of the park.
Coal Dock Park is actually two parks — the 13 acre northern peninsula, a groomed park which opened to the public last week, and the seven acre south dock, a more naturalistic area that’s home to a bird sanctuary and opened some time ago — bordered on three sides by Lake Michigan.
A decorative pedestrian bridge spans the power plant’s intake channel, joining the two portions of the park.
Since the park opened, there’s been a steady stream of visitors, curious about the area that’s been under construction for the better part of the last year.
Their curiosity has been rewarded with sweeping vistas of the city and lakefront.
“It gives people another perspective of the city, one from the lake,” City Administrator Mark Grams said. “It’s a view you didn’t get before unless you had a boat. I don’t think anyone will be disappointed when they go out there.
“It’s everything I thought it could be when we started this project.”
Mayor Tom Mlada said people who have visited the park have been effusive in their praise.
“It’s phenomenal,” Mlada said. “Everyone who goes out there loves it. It’s going to be a source of pride for the city for years to come.”
The transformation from an industrial behemoth to a recreational showcase expected to draw crowds from throughout the region has its roots in the history of We Energies.
When the Port Washington power plant was built in the heart of the Great Depression, crews dug 275,000 cubic yards of dirt from the south bluff to accommodate the new facility, using the soil to fill a portion of the lakebed and create the coal dock.
When the new plant opened in 1935 until the utility announced plans to convert the facility to one powered by natural gas, hundreds if not thousands of freighters stopped in Port Washington, dropping tons of coal at the dock with each visit.
Power plant officials estimate that every month from August 1932 until June 19. 2004, freighters took coal through the Great Lakes to the Port plant, depositing an average 18,000 tons monthly.
The ships’ visits were an attraction for residents and tourists, who would flock to the lakeshore to watch the coal being unloaded.
The towering coal bridge, which was used for decades to move the fuel from the freighters to the dock, was felled on Sept. 21, 1989, when self-unloading ships took over the lake.
We Energies’ decision to convert the power plant to a gas-fired facility paved the way for Coal Dock Park, a process that took more than a decade to complete and encompassed three mayor’s terms.
Former mayor Mark Gottlieb and Grams worked to hammer out an agreement with the utility that would allow the conversion, but with conditions. Among the conditions — that the utility do all it could to ensure the coal dock would remain open for public use.
“I think, to some degree, people don’t realize the comprehensive nature of that agreement,” Gottlieb said of the 2002 pact, noting the city gained not only the park but also millions of dollars in mitigation payments, the southern extension of Wisconsin Street and land.
“I think the agreement has served the city well,” he said.
The park is perhaps the most visible result of the agreement, he said.
“At the time, we just knew there was a lot of land out there. We knew we needed to make sure it went into public use, but I don’t think we had any real definitive vision for what it should be,” Gottlieb said. “It is a fantastic addition to the city.
“Previously as you came off Wisconsin Street, you had a gate to the power plant there. Now, you have open pedestrian and vehicular access to the lake. And when you go out there, you have an unobstructed view of the lake and of the city. It’s a different perspective you can’t get anywhere else.”
Gottlieb’s successor, Scott Huebner, and other city officials spent years planning for the park and working with the state to ensure the city was able to use the land.
Because the coal dock is primarily man-made land created on the publicly owned lakebed, control of the land transferred to the State of Wisconsin once the utility had no use for it.
Although the city wanted to open the property to the public, it could not directly gain control of the land. After years of negotiations, We Energies leased the coal dock land from the State of Wisconsin and the City of Port subleased the land from the utility.
The 50-year lease can be renewed for similar terms after it expires.
“The coal dock itself provided a valuable resource for the power plant, but now it is a resource for the city and downtown,” Huebner said. “It’s definitely a great addition. It lightens up the downtown a bit and softens up the look of the power plant. And it provides better access to the south beach.”
With input from residents, the city created a $27 million, decade-long plan to guide development of the coal dock — everything from walking trails to a multi-use community center, a themed interactive area, performance area, observation tower and deep-water docks.
The current work realizes only the beginning of that plan, but it shows what an asset the dock will be, Huebner said.
“I think it’s great,” he said. “I think this accomplishes everything I had hoped for.
“It’s open to the public now, which is what it was all about.”
Although the city had hoped to open Coal Dock Park in June, weather and logistics delayed the opening.
On Thursday, Aug. 15, the park was opened to pedestrians and the following day to vehicles. A grand opening celebration is slated for Sept. 28 and 29.
Only minor items remain to be completed on the $2 million project, Public Works Director Rob Vanden Noven said, including some electrical work and the planting of grass and of native plants around the boardwalk on the far east side.
But that’s not to say work on the park is completed. The city will continue to develop the park for years to come, seeking donations for at least some of the amenities.
The city has a grant to help fund a small, lower dock area along the north side of the coal dock, Vanden Noven said, and interpretive signs may be installed in the park.
Plans for a memorial pavilion commemorating Tyler Buczek and Peter Dougherty, who drowned off the Port Washington shore last year, and a bench in Buczek’s honor have been approved for the dock, which is already home to a World War II memorial.
The city is looking into the possibility of placing a railing along the 1,000-foot-long promenade on the north side of the coal dock. Currently there is nothing to keep pedestrians walking there from falling into the water below.
And on Tuesday, the Common Council approved plans for a 37-foot-tall, 50-foot wide sign at the entry to the park.
The sign, which is estimated to cost a total of $68,000, would be financed through fundraising, Vanden Noven said.
Adam Brown, owner of Sign Effectz Inc. and a member of Port Washington Main Street who designed the sign, said the goal was to reflect the history of the coal dock.
The sign, which will be partially lit, incorporates two intersecting steel trusses that recall the coal bridge with an oval medallion at the center. The medallion has a stylized boat and waves, along with the name “Coal Dock Park.”
“I really like the design,” Ald. Mike Ehrlich said. “It think it’s really cool and does reflect the history of the coal dock and the big blue crane.”
Image Information: (Top) A freighter was unloaded at the Wisconsin Electric Power Co. coal dock, circa 1950. Press file photo
(Bottom) Port Washington’s Coal Dock Park, Aug. 20, 2013. Photo by Bill Schanen IV