Steaming the Great Lakes: The Forgotten Legacy of Goodrich Line

May. 16, 2016
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Pictured Above: A view of the CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS at the Goodrich docks, looking south from Michigan Street

For over eighty years, the majestic sidewheel steam ships of the Goodrich Transport line were a common sight on the downtown part of the Milwaukee River. The Goodrich Line was once the world’s largest inlake passenger carrier and ran its most famous vessel – one of the most notable the Great Lakes have ever known – between Milwaukee and Chicago for over 35 years.

Captain Albert Goodrich was only 30 years old in 1855 when he took possession of his first side-wheel steamship. Goodrich had been a trusted partner in the Ward Transit line, another Great Lakes shipping company, when they extended their service to the port of Chicago. Goodrich, however, saw more money to be made along the Wisconsin’s coastline – the western edge of Lake Michigan – which had yet to be reached by railroad service. The first line connecting Chicago to Milwaukee was just being competed and no lines at all existed north of the Cream City. With his first vessel, HURON, Goodrich established himself as a fair and competent shipper of both goods and passengers, connecting the burgeoning lake port towns with the established metropolises of the east. In 1859, he commissioned his firs vessel, UNION, the first of many Goodrich ships to be built in Manitowoc, another growing Wisconsin port city.

But Milwaukee would also be the crucial link in the Goodrich line. The first Goodrich dock was established here in 1859, hosting the HURON, on the western edge of the river between Clybourn and Sycamore (now Michigan) streets. The HURON was for a time piloted by a captain named Frederick Pabst. In 1863, Capt. Pabst ran aground trying a difficult docking in Milwaukee. Soon after, he decided that the life of a sailor was not for him. His next venture, beer-brewing, proved much more successful. Goodrich’s downtown Milwaukee docks expanded with his fleet through the 1800s, eventually covering the both halves of the river from Clybourn to Grand (now Wisconsin) Avenue. As the line’s traffic peaked in the 1890s and 1900s, it was not uncommon to see the 3-400 foot vessels docked two abreast on the river, reaching nearly from bridge to bridge.

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 Pictured Above: A handbill advertising the various Goodrich routes on Lake Michigan.


While a major shipper of package good on the lake, the legacy of the Goodrich Company is as a passenger carrier. The early days of railroad passenger transport were too rugged, slow, and expensive for some, leaving the Goodrich Line to ferry thousands of passengers a day about the lake: from Manitowoc and points north down to Sheboygan; from Sheboygan to Milwaukee; from Milwaukee across to Michigan or down to Racine or Chicago. Or from any point up to the Straights of Mackinac on through to Buffalo and the east coast or across the ocean. The Goodrich Line, and the number of competitors that sailed the lake along side it, were the primary means for travelers, laborers, and immigrants to get from the east into and around the Midwest.


 Pictured above: The mighty COLUMBUS, the star of the Goodrich fleet.


In 1899, the Goodrich Line leased its most celebrated vessel, the 362 foot SS CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS. The COLUMBUS was built in 1892 to provide sightseeing rides during the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. It was the largest Whaleback-style ship ever built and the only one built for passenger use. Goodrich renovated the grand ship and put her in regular service between Chicago and Milwaukee. The COLUMBUS trip became a sightseeing staple for both cities and the ship was often filled with thousands of daytrippers. The sailing schedule allowed for a two-hour layover in each port on its daily runs.

To entertain visitors during the layover, Goodrich purchased a fleet of thirty-person carriages, each pulled by a team of matching horses. The carriage rides – available to passengers for an extra 75 cents – departed from the downtown docks and took Wisconsin Avenue to the lakefront, Prospect Avenue to Lake Park, North Avenue to Reservoir Park, and then paraded across the Holton Street viaduct and back towards downtown. For passengers who sought to see a different side of Milwaukee, hack drivers were always at the ready to take men from the Goodrich landing to any number of nearby saloons or brothels. For those who had no time to waste at all, Goodrich opened his own saloon at the corner of what is now Michigan and Plankinton. It was said that more than a few COLUMBUS travelers saw no more of Milwaukee than the lone block form the dock to the saloon and back.

By the 1920s, Goodrich was hit with both a decrease in passenger and freight shipping, as more people opted for the connivance and safety of the rails. The expansion of the Gimbels store on Grand Avenue had shrunken their dock space and the company began to jettison some of its older boats and lines. When the Depression hit, the company was too weak to survive. The COLUMBUS was taken out of service in 1933 when the company went bankrupt. Goodrich continued to run the steamer NORTH CAROLINA, however, until 1937. In November of that year, the 82-year run of the line came to an end when the CAROLINA was unceremoniously converted into a shipping barge.

The old Goodrich dock, however, continued to serve as a passenger terminus. Since 1962, it has been home to the IROQUOIS, which was retired in 2011 as the longest-serving sightseeing boat in Milwaukee’s history, and is presently home to the VISTA KING and VOYAGEUR, the fleet of the Milwaukee Boat Line.

Join Matthew J. Prigge down at the old Goodrich dock two week from Wednesday for the first MONDO MILWAUKEE boat tour of 2016! Hear the weird, shocking, and titillating history of the city via the lake and rivers! Buy Tickets now!

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