I took a good long look today because the scene is liable to change drastically tomorrow. Today, all but one of the winter lay-up boats are still here. In the next four days, eight are due to leave.
Right now, the ore boats, barges and a tug or two are crunched together in a marine huddle at Sturgeon Bay’s Bay Shipbuilding. That’s a pretty good trick when seven of them are a thousand feet long. Just imagine, along any shoreline, seven Sears Towers lying side by side, along with other “smaller” 600- and 700-hundred foot boats.
Although their placement has been arranged precisely, most of them carefully maneuvered by a private fleet of tugs, it can look pretty random, with a bow sticking out here, a stern there. Coming down Madison Street toward the bay, the boats appear to lie like scattered match sticks. It’s a view few towns can boast. It’s a view I love–and so do a lot of visitors and residents.
Some people in this town, though, don’t seem to appreciate this working harbor. They appreciate the jobs, of course. Bay Shipbuilding employs hundreds of men who do routine maintenance on lakers, tugs and the occasional cruise boat, as well as build new boats. Next door is Palmer Johnson Yachts–and I mean BIG yachts, at times. Yachts for nameless billionaires from foreign countries. A bit farther down the bay is Selvick Marine Towing, with a fleet that ranges from a hundred-foot tug to a small one that’s just plain cute.
The tug fleet lies between two of the bay’s three bridges. The Michigan Street Bridge, a scenic and historic span, was once due to be torn down, so, the Oregon Street Bridge was built a mere two blocks away. Then, because people protested the idea of losing their old favorite, it was granted a reprieve. With the Bayview Bridge a half-mile away to handle the highway bypass traffic, that gives drivers quite a choice.
The tug fleet is nestled at the west-side end of the old steel bridge. Near it is the big, retired tug, John Purves, which can be toured by tourists; and the fireboat Fred Busse, which gives cruises. They tie up by the Door County Marine Museum.
It all sounds scenic and cozy, doesn’t it? Well, the city’s harbor commission has determined that a three-year vision for the Sturgeon Bay waterfront should involve relocating the tug fleet so it’s more out of sight and building a “festival pier” for cruise boats, “tall ships” and commercial boats in its place.
As it stands now, that tug fleet is easily visible when crossing the bridge. I’m proud of these tugs who do real work, who break ice and maneuver boats, who act as the workhorses of our harbor. They, along with Bay Shipbuilding, are proof that this is a serious harbor for real people, not just an inlet full of window dressing for the tourists. I think those same tourists can appreciate that, too.
Would residents and visitors come to see tall ships? Of course they would. Would cruise boats dock there? That’s debatable. None of them are worth the money, or the relocation of the tug fleet, as far as I’m concerned.
Not everyone will be against this, of course. Someone already suggested that it be an upscale, smaller version of Chicago’s Navy Pier. The idea makes me shudder. One huge stone monstrosity, aka hotel, already sits right on the water, blocking precious views. Another one is planned. Does everything have to be about shopping and attracting tourists?
Some city officials seem to think so. I bet, if they could, they’d move Bay Shipbuilding somewhere out of sight, too.
There’s no guarantee that this plan will ever come to fruition, even if the city council approves. I’ll cling to that slim hope.
Meanwhile, camera in hand, I’ll stalk the tugs as they go about their daily business. I’ll hope to catch the ore boats as they head out this spring, surprisingly quiet about their departures despite their size. If the working harbor is a bit gritty in places, I don’t mind. It’s about real people doing real work (not minimum wage hospitality jobs) and it tells a real story.