SS Milwaukee

SS Milwaukee was a train ferry that served on Lake Michigan. It was launched in 1902 and sank with all hands off Milwaukee on October 22, 1929. Fifty-two men were lost with the vessel.

The Milwaukee when she was named Manistique-Marquette & Northern No. 1
United States
  • Manistique-Marquette & Northern No. 1 (1902-1909)
  • Milwaukee (1909-1929)
Builder: American Ship Building Company, Cleveland, Ohio
Yard number: 413
Launched: December 6, 1902
In service: 1903
Out of service: 1929
Identification: Official number: 93363
Fate: Sank, October 22, 1929
General characteristics [1]
Length: 338 ft (103 m)
Beam: 56 ft (17 m)
Depth: 19 ft (5.8 m)
MILWAUKEE (steam screw) Shipwreck
Anchor from the SS Milwaukee, recovered in 1973
Nearest cityFox Point, Wisconsin
Coordinates43.136317°N 87.832283°W / 43.136317; -87.832283
ArchitectAmerican Ship Building Company
Architectural styleTrain ferry
NRHP reference #15000479 [2]
Added to NRHPJuly 27, 2015

Ship history

The ship was built by the American Ship Building Company of Cleveland, Ohio, and launched on December 6, 1902. Initially owned by the Manistique-Marquette & Northern Railroad Company of Manistique, Michigan, she was operated under the name Manistique-Marquette & Northern No. 1 until 1909, when she was bought by the Grand Trunk Milwaukee Car Ferry Company and renamed Milwaukee.[3]

The Milwaukee shuttled railroad cars back and forth from Milwaukee to the Grand Trunk Railway's dock in Grand Haven in western Michigan. This route enabled shippers to avoid the crowded railroad yards and sidings of Chicago. The Milwaukee was home-ported in the city for which it was named. The docks of the Grand Trunk Milwaukee Car Ferry Company were located on the Kinnickinnic River, and their ferries were familiar sights to residents of Jones Island.


Around 2:00 pm on October 22, 1929, the Milwaukee sailed off on Lake Michigan into a storm bound for Grand Haven, and was lost. The Milwaukee had been loaded earlier that day with 27 railcars, with freight including lumber, perishable foods, bathtubs and Nash automobiles.[4][5] The Milwaukee was last seen passing by U.S. Lightship 95 (LV-95/WAL-519), a ship anchored three miles offshore, serving as a lighthouse. The Milwaukee was reported to be pitching and rolling heavily as it disappeared into the rainy mist. The ship did not have radio equipment. It was considered routine for the Milwaukee to challenge the storm. Some of the 27 railroad cars in the ship's hold came loose in the 37 mph (32 kn; 60 km/h) gale and crashed through the sea gate, allowing water to come in over the stern and sink the ship. The captain, Robert H. McKay, apparently turned back for Milwaukee, but never made it.[4]

On October 24, aircraft searched Lake Michigan, but found nothing.

Some of the lifeboats were launched by the crew, and the bodies of two crew members wearing SS Milwaukee lifejackets were picked up two days later by the steamer, SS Steel Chemist, off Kenosha, Wisconsin, and two more, including the body of Captain McKay, were found by the coast guard at Kenosha later that day.[6] A lifeboat containing four dead crew members was found on 26 October floating near Holland, Michigan, on the other side of the lake.[7] That lifeboat is now located at the 1860 Light Station and Museum in Port Washington, Wisconsin and is on display as permanent museum exhibit.

On October 27, an empty lifeboat was found floating near Grand Haven, Michigan. On further investigation, it was found that the ship's message case was floating nearby with an apparent final message: Oct. 22, 1929. 8:30 pm. The ship is making water fast. We have turned around and headed for Milwaukee. Pumps are working, but sea gate is bent in and can't keep the water out. Flicker is flooded. Seas are tremendous. Things look bad. Crew roll is about the same as last payday. A.R. Sadon, Purser.[8]

Another note, found in a bottle, read: This is the worst storm I have ever seen. Can't stay up much longer. Hole in side of boat.[4]

All 52 people on board were lost, while 15 bodies were recovered. The watch on one of those crew members was stopped at 9:35.[4] As the years passed, interest in the circumstances around the loss of the ship was occasionally rekindled. For example, the story was retold by marine historian Dwight Boyer in his Ghost Ships of the Great Lakes in 1968.[9]

City of Milwaukee

As a result of the loss of the SS Milwaukee, the Grand Trunk needed a new train ferry. The replacement was the SS City of Milwaukee, launched November 25, 1930. The replacement vessel is now a museum ship and National Historic Landmark.[10]

The train ferry rediscovered

In April 1972, the wreck was located in Lake Michigan, seven miles northeast of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, three miles offshore (on a line between Milwaukee and Grand Haven), at 43°08′11″N 87°49′55″W,[11] in 90–120 ft (27–37 m) of water.[12]

In March 2006, the History Channel television program Deep Sea Detectives premiered an episode entitled "Train Wreck in Lake Michigan", which profiled the loss of the Milwaukee through historical documents, interviews with historians and dives to the wreck itself. The show highlighted the fact that there were missing hatch covers between the track deck and compartments below, including the engine room and the crew quarters (Flicker), that probably allowed those areas to become flooded and thus contributed to the sinking of the ship.[13]


  1. "Great Lakes Shipwrecks (M)". Retrieved November 22, 2012.
  2. "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. March 13, 2009.
  3. "Manistique-Marquette & Northern No. 1". Bowling Green State University. Archived from the original on December 12, 2012. Retrieved November 22, 2012.
  4. Shelak, Benjamin J. (2003). Shipwrecks of Lake Michigan. Big Earth Publishing. pp. 70–71. Retrieved 9 February 2014.
  5. "Milwaukee (1903)". Wisconsin Shipwrecks. Wisconsin Sea Grant, Wisconsin Historical Society. Retrieved 2018-11-05.
  6. "Lake Michigan Storm Claims Lives of 54 Sailors". Escanaba Daily Press. Retrieved 1 January 2016 via
  7. "Local Coast Guards Find Four Wreck Dead". The News-Palladium. pp. 3, 6. Retrieved 3 January 2016 via 6 here
  8. "Message in a Bottle". Michigan History. 91 (2): 40–47. Mar–Apr 2007.
  9. Boyer, Dwight (1968). Ghost Ships of the Great Lakes. New York City, N.Y.: Dodd, Mead & Company. LOC #68-23094.
  10. "S.S. City of Milwaukee". Retrieved November 22, 2012.
  11. Lorenzen, Darrick (February 24, 2007). "Milwaukee Area Wrecks". Archived from the original on February 16, 2012. Retrieved November 22, 2012.
  12. "Car Ferry Milwaukee". Archived from the original on July 6, 2008. Retrieved November 22, 2012.
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