History lives in fading sounds of Port

Weekly Saturday siren to go the way of fog horns, coal freighters, work whistles and school bells that once filled the city with sound

FORMER PORT FIRE CHIEF Marc Eernisse (photo above) showed off the bell that once called children to classes at the Wisconsin Street School at the corner of Jackson and Wisconsin streets in downtown Port Washington and is now part of the firefighter memorial at the Port Fire Station next door. Photo by Sam Arendt
Ozaukee Press staff

Every community has a rhythm, a soundtrack to the lives being lived in it. But that soundtrack is fading over time.

The most recent example of this is the Port Washington Police Department’s decision to sound the tornado siren only once a month beginning this spring instead of every Saturday at 1 p.m. — a move made so residents don’t grow so accustomed to the sound that they ignore the alarm when an emergency strikes.

In fact, the sounds of the city have been growing fainter through the decades. They include the mundane, such as the rumbling of coal as it was delivered down coal chutes into basement bins or the milk bottles clattering as they were delivered by the milkman.

Then there were the louder sounds that created a backdrop to daily life, such as the city’s iconic foghorn, the horns of boats visiting the harbor and the trains that traversed the community.

Port’s various churches rang bells that pealed throughout the community instead of the electronic ones used today.

Perhaps most notable are the bells at St. Mary’s Catholic Church, which rang at 6 a.m., noon and 6 p.m., for the Angelus as well as whenever someone died, said Mary Flierl, a volunteer with the Port Historical Society. The number of times the bell tolled announced whether the person who died was a man, woman or child, she added.

In 1955, William Niederkorn, the founder of Simplicity Manufacturing, donated the money to replace the three original bells, which were purchased in 1875, with electronic ones, Father Pat Wendt said. 

Today the bells ring on the hour, as well as at 9 a.m., noon and 6 p.m. for the Angelus, or call to prayer, he said. They also toll at the end of funerals and weddings.

Trains were another of the most notable sounds heard in Port, although they no longer traverse the community multiple times a day.

“Back in the day when I was a kid, the trains came through town a lot,” Mark “Mopey” Wildhagen said. “It wasn’t just freight trains. They had passenger trains that would stop too.”

At the Grand Avenue railroad crossing, he said, “they had a little shack there. When the train was coming, a man would come out with a stop sign and stop traffic.”

The crossing, he said, had little bells that would sway as they rang when the train went by.
The interurban train came through the city as well, although Flierl said it was much quieter.

“It was electric, so you didn’t hear it,” she said. “It hummed along. If anything, you would hear the warning bell at an intersection.”

  Wildhagen described the city’s sounds by direction. The train, he said, was the sound of the west side, but the sound of ambulances was the trademark of the north side, where St. Alphonsus Hospital — the only hospital in the county at the time — was located.

“Because we had the only hospital, you heard a lot of ambulances come  into Port,” he said. “There were a lot of sirens. And the old sirens — they kind of cranked them up.”

The south side of the city was relatively quiet, Wildhagen said, but the lakefront and downtown were where it was at.

“Everything happened down at the lake,” he said.

The sounds of the lake included the horns of the fishing boats and ships that brought in supplies for the many businesses that ringed the harbor, since Port’s lakefront was a commercial hub, he said. 

Perhaps the most notable of all were the coal boats that brought huge loads to what was then known as the Wisconsin Electric Power Co. plant.

“You’d hear them blow their whistles coming in,” Wildhagen said. “Then you would hear the coal dock as they unloaded the boats. That was quite a distinctive noise to hear. You would hear the noise of it moving along the track and the bucket going into the hold and picking up the coal then dropping it on the coal pile.”

Harbormaster Dennis Cherny noted that there was also a whistle that the power plant would blow if it was too windy for the large vessels coming in.

“When it was gale force, it would blow continuously,” Wildhagen said. “It was a real shrill whistle.” 

While coal boats would come into the west slip, oil freighters would go into the north slip and dock behind what is today Schooner Pub to unload, sending the oil through underground pipes.

“That was a different noise,” Wildhagen said.

Perhaps the most distinctive sound of the lakefront was the foghorn, he said.

“That was unbelievable. It was two distinct low pitches,” Wildhagen said. “Anytime it was a little foggy, that thing would go off.”

The sound was iconic, notifying boaters where the entrance to the harbor is, Cherny said. It still sounds, he said, but only if boaters activate it from their boats using their VHF radios and the sound isn’t anywhere near as loud as it once was.

“I guess people complained about it,” he said.

And a 1 p.m. siren sounded throughout the community each day, calling workers at the lakefront Wisconsin Chair Co. to return from their lunch break.

The company’s steam whistle was also used to call firefighters for the plant and the city, former Port fire chief Marc Eernisse said.

The whistle was eventually supplanted by sirens throughout the city, which were used until the early 1970s, and eventually by pagers, he said.

The sirens sounded not only when a fire was reported — “If they went off at 2 in the morning, everyone in town knew there was a fire,” Eernisse said. “With the fire department being right downtown, the residents got waken up by the big sirens and then heard the sirens on the trucks when we went out.” — but also when they were tested every Saturday. 

These sirens also served as the city’s tornado warning sirens, he said, adding, “A lot of the sirens were actually designed to be severe weather warning sirens.”

School bells were another sound heard throughout the community. In downtown, the most prominent were at St. Mary’s Catholic School and Wisconsin Street School, which today is the site of the Port Police Station.

The Wisconsin Street School bell was incorporated into the memorial outside the neighboring Port Fire Station, where it stands as a symbol of the bell that once summoned firefighters.


Click Here to Send a Letter to the Editor

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


User login