Milwaukee’s Hardest Working Boat: The Harbor Seagull

Jun. 27, 2017
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The Harbor Seagull breaks ice in the inner harbor in 1984. (Milwaukee Public Library)

The Harbor Seagull goes unnoticed by most Milwaukeeans today, docked near the Lafarge Cement Company’s silo and Kaszubes Park on Jones Island. You can’t see it from any but the loneliest streets in the area and, even by boat, it’s not nearly as visually interesting as the cluster of red and green Great Lakes Towing tugs that are docked nearby. But for over 55 years, the Seagull has been Milwaukee’s little boat that could, performing some of grimiest tasks on an urban waterway that was once a far cry from the playground it is today.

The boat was commissioned by the city in 1961, built by the T. D. Vinette Shipbuilding Company in Escanaba, Michigan. Oddly enough, there were brief worries that the boat had been lost before it even arrived in Milwaukee. T. D. Vinette himself piloted the Seagull on its delivery trip, but missed a planned changeover in Port Washington that would have had Milwaukee Harbormaster R. H. Knight captain the boat on its final leg to the city. Vinette was distracted by a small mechanical issue and found himself just outside Milwaukee Harbor by the time he realized he had overshot his target port. Seeing no sense in turning back, Vinette delivered the Seagull to its new Jones Island home as city officials worried that the Seagull and its crew were lost in the soupy Lake Michigan fog.

The Seagull was the only boat of its kind on the Great Lakes: a hybrid icebreaker, debris mover and fire fighter. The fifty-footer was equipped with a 220 horsepower engine, a 22-foot boom with a two-ton capacity, and a water pump capable of throwing 500 gallons of water 200 feet every minute. It would be tasked with clearing larger pieces of trash from river and harbor and assisting the fire department’s vessel, Trident, in putting down fires.

But it was an ecological calamity that ended up giving the Seagull its primary duty. By the boat’s first summer of operation, the alewives that had invaded Lake Michigan in recent years were dying off in massive and spontaneous waves, littering the beaches and clogging the rivers with dead and decaying fish. Using a custom-made net, the Seagull made daily trips up and down the rivers in the spring and summer, scooping alewives from the top of the water and returning them to Jones Island. From there, they were loaded into trucks and removed to a nearby landfill.

The city experimented with an “air curtain” in the mid-1960s, a series of bubbles created by special hoses laid at the river bottom, to try to keep the little fish from washing up river. It worked for a time, but into the 1970s, the alewives problem was worse than ever. The noble work of the Seagull made the boat and its small crew something of folk characters in the city. In 1971, a Milwaukee Journal reporter rode along on a daily alewife patrol and noted that civilians would wave or flash the peace sign as the boat passed. Wright Garvey, a naval veteran of three wars who had survived two shipwrecks by leaping overboard, captained the Seagull. Garvey and his men had perfected the process of gathering dead alewives by using the boat’s water gun to sweep them into the net.

In late summer and fall, they worked to remove duckweed – a green vegetation that takes to stagnant waters – from the river. The blobby green masses were not dangerous, just ugly. The crew could remove as much as 25 tons of the stuff in a single day. They also kept the rivers free of any large debris and were the unofficial go-to for collecting “floaters,” their term for dead bodies that were found in the water. They found most of them in a catch area in the Menomonee Valley, downstream from a spot on the 27th Street viaduct that was common for suicides.

But not all their work was so grim. In the winter months, they regularly saved dogs that had wondered onto ice floats and gotten trapped. They also found some “treasures” among the trash they pulled from the water. Garvey bragged that they had once pulled in a sofa with ten dollars change still inside and had once found a basketful of bottles stuffed with religious rantings, dropping in by a woman intent on spreading her gospel message.

Through the 1970s and 80s, as the alewife population finally dwindled, the Seagull’s main task was icebreaking. From the KK bridge out to the breakwater was their typical route, blasting open paths for the city fire boat and commercial fishing vessels. The Seagull could punch through ice as thick as 18 inches, going out every morning in the winter to keep their paths open. Garvey compared the work to driving head-on into a brick wall at ten miles per hour.

In 1989, the Journal caught up with Garvey, who had just retired as captain of the Seagull and the city’s harbormaster. The article described Garvey as an angry old man; bitter at the changes time had wrought on his harbor. The lines of freighters waiting to dock and the teams of stevedores earning a living at the port were gone. The carferries had long ago laid up. Even Kaszubes Park (Garvey himself had planted the huge ship’s anchor in the park for its dedication in 1974) was in danger of being moved off the island. The post of harbormaster, which Garvey had held with distinction for 19 years, had not been filled after his retirement. His island, and his way of life, were fading away. “The bosses say, ‘Don’t worry about it,’” he told the Journal. “‘[bleep] you,’ I say… Get a rail car full of [bleeping] dynamite and we’ll take care of it.” He couldn’t say if the Seagull, docked where it still is today, would see much action in his absence. “What the hell?” he told the reporter with s shrug.

The Seagull wouldn’t find the boneyard after Garvey’s retirement. It continued to serve as the primary icebreaking vessel for the port until recent years, when the conversion of the Menomonee Valley Power Plant to natural gas ended the year-round tugboat runs of coal from the inner harbor to the valley. Jeff Flemming, spokesman for the Port of Milwaukee, says that the Seagull does remain in regular use, assisting in breakwater repair work and with debris clean up.


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