Brian’s Bay: How three shipwrecks capture the history of Door County and the Gilded Age

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    There is a rich history behind the picturesque view from the many decks of Brian’s Bay which invokes the imagination and thus sparks creativity as a person envisions what Bullhead Point looked like in the early 1900’s when it was a bustling dock, exporting limestone extracted from the quarries. After countless hours spent researching historical texts, government records, and any source available, I’ve written this history to give the distinguished guests of Brian’s Bay a glimpse into the past.

    Drone photography of the three shipwrecks via Dan Eggert Photography

    Ships will continue carrying commodities so long as there is money to be made in trade and commerce. It is, therefore, no stretch to predict that vessels will continue to be lost through human error, human intervention (warfare), accident, or the elements. Less dynamic, though equally as effective, abandonment also represents a means by which vessels make their way into the archaeological record. Vessels that have survived their useful life transporting commodities have been dis posed of in many different ways, depending upon their scrap value for a given area and time. For instance, it was not uncommon for salvors to burn wooden ships on the Great Lakes in the early part of the 19th century in order to recover the valuable metal fasteners holding vessels together. This would not necessarily have been a common practice on the east coast during the same period, since fasteners were cheap and accessible. It certainly wouldn’t be the case today as you’d have the DNR so far up your ass you’d be begging for mercy and a federal bailout. I digress, to save money it was common at the turn of the 20th century to convert wooden vessels into barges, extending their utility and not having to worry too much about them getting a little banged up in the process.

    On the eastern seaboard for example, “…old clipper schooners from Maine to Chesapeake Bay ended their days tethered to a towline” (Karamanski 2000:40). When these vessels were no longer useful as barges they were often intentionally sunk and filled to extend wharves and docks. At the turn of the 20th century, as they had from time immemorial, hulks were also towed to backwaters and simply allowed to settle to the bottom. By this time a wooden vessel’s scrap value was no longer worth its demolition, especially since the increased use of modern iron and steel hulls all but ruled out new construction in wood and the potential reuse of a wooden vessel’s fasteners and fittings. Economic downturns allowed other ships to simply settle at their moorings awaiting cargoes that would never arrive.

    These economic patterns are crucial to understanding the history of Brian’s Bay and it’s surrounding city of Sturgeon Bay and town of Nasewaupee. The history outlined here is not intended to be a comprehensive history of Sturgeon Bay, but rather will focus on the area’s stone industry, particularly the Sturgeon Bay Stone Company, in whose service these barges were last employed. It should be noted that secondary historical sources on this subject are scarce, while general regional histories tend to downplay industrial activity and focus on ethnography and important events, often leaving the reader to wonder why people lived in the area at all. The reader should still wonder why people live in the town of Nasewaupee as their town council has never managed to advance out of this industrial age of stone dating back over a century.

    History of Sturgeon Bay and it’s first export: stone

    To accurately portray the history of Sturgeon Bay, one must closely examine the interrelationship of the region’s economic development and its link to the area’s geologic contribution. Sturgeon Bay Harbor was created by a natural rift in the dolomite ridge that is Door County, Wisconsin. In 1878 this rift was extended by completion of the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal to fully connect the waters of Green Bay to the west with Lake Michigan on the eastern side of the Door Peninsula (Holand 1917:152). The Sturgeon Bay ship canal allowed ships to pass through the county, cutting 100 miles (160.9 km) from their journey around the Door and enabling them to bypass the treacherous waters at the peninsula’s northern tip known as Death’s Door (shown below).

    Map of Porte des Morts Passage, Wisconsin, is known as 'Death's Door.
    Map of Porte des Morts Passage, Wisconsin, is known as ‘Death’s Door.

    The site of Sturgeon Bay was first settled by whites as a fur trading post in the 1820s (Holand 1917:304-305). Other centers in Door County such as Little Sturgeon Bay, approximately 10 mi. (16.1 km) southwest of Sturgeon Bay, were built up around saw mills and shingle factories in the 1830s and 1840s. These industries produced needed building materials for burgeoning lake port cities such as Chicago, Milwaukee, and Green Bay. For a time, Little Sturgeon competed success fully with Sturgeon Bay as the economic center of the Door, shipping lumber, shingles, ice, and for a time, well built sailing ships from its fine sheltered wharf facilities (Hirthe 1986:15-32).

    As Sturgeon Bay was the only fully protected harbor in the county, it attracted early 19th century settlement and development. The area’s bountiful stone resources were first examined by United States Indian Agent Samuel Stambaugh in 1831. From his outpost at Green Bay Stambaugh authored a report entitled The Quality and Condition of the Wisconsin Territory, in which he revealed that Sturgeon Bay had a “commodious harbor…with the best stone available for build ing purposes” (Collections of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin 1900:425). While touring the region in 1843, Army Lt. Douglas Houghton confirmed Stambaugh’s discovery and added that the area possessed other natural resources as well. Houghton revealed that Sturgeon Bay enjoyed tremendous stands of hard wood timber, as well as underlying strata of Niagara Limestone. Moreover, because the stone lay close to the surface, little stripping of the overburden was necessary (Rowe 1979:8).

    The bluffs made of limestone in Door County were used to build most of the harbors, docks, and government buildings along the Great Lakes.

    Equally important, the particular geography of Sturgeon Bay allowed for easy access to its natural resources. Limestone made up the bluffs on both sides of he harbor allowing for the commodity’s easy transport via ship and barge. Indeed, according to a 1911 government report on the stone industry, “The proximity of some of the quarries in eastern Wisconsin to water transportation on Lake Michigan has greatly aided their rapid development” (Burchard 1912:68). 

    Photo courtesy of Door County Historical Museum.

    The stone found in the Sturgeon Bay area had unique qualities well suited for its eventual industrial use. The building, or construction, stone industry has two major branches: dimension stone and crushed or broken stone (Currier 1960:1). Though the Niagara Dolomite in Sturgeon Bay was extremely dense, 155 pounds per square foot, and nicely colored from buff to bluish gray, it is found in horizon tal beds too thin and fractured for uniform dressing. Unblemished stone in thick deposits are a necessity for building or finished stone. The Niagara Dolomite’s hardness, lack of absorbency, crushing strength, and transverse strength, however, made it ideal for the enormous piers and breakwaters constructed throughout the Great Lakes from the mid-19th through the early 20th century (Buckley 1898:340 343; Currier 1960:71). Stone for these projects was usually in the form of rubble, or “one man stone” weighing 50-100 lb. (22.7-45.4 kg) each, or riprap stone weighing 2-5 tons apiece (Holand 1917:168). Crushed limestone can also be used for cement (quick lime), beet sugar processing, highway and railroad beds, and added to steel for its carbon component (Beck 1991:54-56). 

    Stone became Door County’s first export when the federal government began a quarrying operation in Sturgeon Bay in 1834. This stone was used to build the breakwater at Michigan City, and it has been suggested that prior to 1917 nearly every harbor on Lake Michigan was built in part with Door County stone (Holand 1917:166). The first private stone business in Sturgeon Bay was started by Robert Laurie and his son John in 1880. In its first year of operation the firm shipped about 900 cords of stone valued at $2,700, and by 1883 was shipping about 4,300 cords annually (Stanley Green File, DCHS). The senior Laurie had some expe rience in the trade. In 1868 he had quarried his own stone and operated a lime kiln in order to build himself Sturgeon Bay’s first stone house. Discovering that there was an emerging local market for lime, Laurie continued in the lime business, and in 1870 burned and sold about 1,000 kegs of lime. It should be noted that the value of water transport was immediately recognized, even for short hauls within Sturgeon Bay, for Laurie employed at least one scow in “…delivering stone up the bay to the village” (Stanley Green File, DCHS). 

    Photo courtesy of Door County Historical Museum.

    In 1885, two more quarries opened in Sturgeon Bay, reflecting the local demand for stone basements, and more increasingly, stone buildings. By 1898, there were at least five quarries in town including the Laurie Stone Company, Leathem and Smith, the Green Quarry, and Termensen and Jensen Company, also known as the Washington Stone Company (Day 1894:542; Buckley 1898:340). In total, eight quarry sites were opened in Sturgeon Bay from 1880 through 1900 (Stanley Green File, DCHS). Significantly, in 1900 the combined output of stone from the city’s quarries reached a sizable aggregate of 24,900 cords, or 174,300 tons (Door County Advocate 8 December 1900). An approximate turn of the century ranking of the largest firms can be reconciled by the following shipping quantities in 1900: Leathem and Smith 8,500 cords; Termansen and Jensen, 6,000 cords; Graef and Nebel, 4,300 cords; and Green and Hagen, 3,600 cords (DCA 8 December 1900). 

    The quarries throughout Sturgeon Bay reflected Wisconsin’s significant national standing as a prime producer of limestone in the United States (Figure 4). In 1890, Wisconsin ranked eighth among the country’s 41 limestone producing states, generating about one-twentieth of the industry’s $19,095,179 in revenue (Day 1895:68). Four years later Wisconsin ranked seventh, moving the federal govern ment to state that “The limestone industry in Wisconsin has become one of consid erable importance” (Day 1895:83). In 1902 the state remained seventh among the 41 limestone producing states, generating $1,351,058 of the $30,231,003 total revenue (United States Geological Survey 1903:9). This represented a significant rise in the value of Wisconsin limestone, for in 1899 statewide revenue for the commodity totaled only $826,486 (USGS 1903:55). These were the peak years for stone produc tion in Sturgeon Bay. 

    The Sturgeon Bay Stone Company 

    In 1903, the Termensen and Jensen quarry merged with Louis Nebel and John Graf’s stone business to form the Sturgeon Bay Stone Company. All of the men had experience in the Sturgeon Bay stone industry (Figure 5), and their merger truly reflects how tightly knit the city’s quarries were. Soren Termensen and Lars Jensen had both worked for the Brewster Quarry, which closed about 1893. Five years later, the pair opened the Termensen and Jensen quarry after leasing a portion of shoreline owned by the Washington Ice Company near the head of Sturgeon Bay. A foreman for the Hagen quarry for almost twenty years, Louis Nebel joined with John Graf in 1900, and began quarrying stone just north of the former Hagen and English quarry site. 

    The four new partners of the Sturgeon Bay Stone Company assumed the corporation’s principal positions: Louis P. Nebel, President; John Graef, Vice President and Treasurer; Soren Termansen, Secretary; and Lars H. Jensen, General Manager. Together with the Green, Laurie, and Smith quarries, the Sturgeon Bay Stone Company represented the “Big Four,” or most influential of the quarries, of Sturgeon Bay’s stone industry during the first years of the 20th century (Stanley Green File, DCHS). When the firm opened for business in 1903 three quarry sites were under its direction, two on the west side of Sturgeon Bay and one on the east side near the mouth of the bay (DCA 17 January 1903). 

    Before the opening of navigation in 1903 the company had already acquired orders for 2,000 cords of stone, all of which would be hauled by the com pany’s tug Sydney Smith and three scows (Figure 6). The quarry’s first year of oper ation was indeed well timed, as Wisconsin was then among the nation’s top pro ducers of limestone. In early July, the Sturgeon Bay Stone Company secured a con tract to furnish 2,200 cords of stone for harbor work at Ludington, Michigan, an order that brought welcome security to the fledgling business. 

    At the end of July, the company’s first major loss occurred when the tug Sydney Smith lost one of its two scows on a trip to Frankfort, Michigan. Harassed by heavy weather, the consort got within 2,000 ft. (609.6 m) of its destination when Temperance, the larger of the two scows rolled, flooded, and sank (DCA 1 August 1903). Interestingly, the smaller scow rolled as well, but was saved when its rail broke, allowing its deck load of stone to slide into the water. The fact that the larg er scow’s rail held fast, prevented it from righting and sealed its fate, illustrating dramatically one of the inherent dangers endured by stone barge crews. 

    Valued at $6,000 and only three years old, the loss of the large scow was a significant one, and clearly provided the impetus for the company purchasing the $2,500 schooner-barge Bliss only a few weeks later (DCA 8 August 1903). Unfortunately, the Bliss foundered the following November, inducing the company to sub-contract (charter) its towing, and leave the tug Sydney Smith laid up for the 1904 season (DCA 7 November 1903). The Sturgeon Bay Stone Company’s misfor tune continued during the summer of 1904 when the threat of a strike accompanied the firm’s chartering of the tug Duncan City.

    The threatened strike provides an interesting glimpse into the safety, economics, and politics associated with the stone carrying trade. The Sturgeon Bay Stone Company wanted the Duncan City to run with only a single crew, a condition that the Licensed Tugmen’s Protective Association (LTPA) would permit only on trips less than 35 miles (56.3 km) (DCA 16 July 1904). Since the company hired the tug to run from Sturgeon Bay to Manitowoc and Menominee, it argued that the trip was less than 60 miles (96.6 km) long and could be made in less than eight hours, therefore an exception should be made. Rather than establish a precedent, the LTPA president refused the company’s request. Using a non-union crew was briefly considered as an alternative, though ultimately the firm chose to abide by union guide lines (DCA 16 July 1904).

    Misfortune plagued the Sturgeon Bay Stone Company through the fall of 1904 when the 360-ton barge Alert and a small scow were lost en route to Petosky, Michigan. After taking nearly 6 feet (1.8 m) of water in its hold, the Alert succumbed to heavy weather shortly after its two-man crew was taken aboard the con sort steamer Duncan City (DCA 24 September 1904). Notably, the Alert was valued at $800, yet it was uninsured, revealing that the company did not feel their barges were worth the cost of insurance.
    The firm continued chartering steamers for hauling its stone and towing barges through 1905, and eventually sold the aging tug Sydney Smith for $7,125 in the spring of that year (DCA 8 April 1905). However, having arrived at the conclusion that a company owned steam barge would increase profits, the Sturgeon Bay Stone Company purchased the steamer I.N. Foster for a reported $10,000 (DCA 6 May 1905). The decision was a sound one, for over the next dozen years contracts remained steady for the company, and serious mishaps upon the lakes were few.

    In 1906 two contracts for nearly 9,000 cords of stone prompted the purchase of the barge Oak Leaf (Figure 7). Two years later the Sturgeon Bay Stone Company was awarded a 20,000 cord contract for the breakwater at Ludington, Michigan, a two year project that prompted the purchase of the Ida Corning (Figure 8). The notable acquisition of the later vessel, prompted the Door County Advocate to declare that “The company will have one of the best fleets of the kind in this region” (DCA 12 March 1908). The former passenger steamer Empire State (Figure 9) was added to the company’s fleet in 1910.

    Crib stone continued to be a mainstay of the business through much of its operation; 7,725 cords of this type were shipped in 1907, along with 911 cords of building stone (47,498 tons aggregate) (DCA 24 December 1908). By 1910, the Sturgeon Bay Stone Company operated a fleet of seven vessels, all of which were busily engaged in fulfilling the large Ludington breakwater contract. The fleet delivered an impressive 7,400 tons of stone per week for the project, revealing much about the vast quantities of stone quarried by the company during this period (DCA 30 June 1910). An appreciation for the size of the project can be gained by the

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