Door County, Maritime Hub of the Great Lakes

Fincantieri Bay Shipbuilding (Fincantieri)

Published Jun 15, 2022 2:27 PM by Chad Fuhrmann

Wisconsin may not come to mind during discussions of the maritime industry, but with over 800 miles of Great Lakes coastline and an additional 200 miles on the Mississippi River, the state is one of the most industrious hubs of maritime activity on the nation’s “Fresh Coast.” From massive commercial vessels over 1,000 feet in length to sport fishing vessels of all sizes, the region thrives on the water and on the opportunities provided by every flavor of the marine industry.

A fraction of the state's maritime talents and treasures were featured recently during a weekend press tour of Door County’s “Maritime Past, Present, and Future.” Surrounded by 300 miles of the state’s Great Lakes coast, Wisconsin’s Door Peninsula is home to many maritime industries whose reach extends beyond the region and beyond the United States.

The tour included visits to a few of the museums and historic sites that dot the region and exhibit the area’s nautical history, from the birch bark canoes of the early Native American populations to the World War II shipbuilding boom to postwar bulk carriers. Historic lighthouses, some still in operation, guide vessels away from the treacherous shallows and hazards of Porte des Mortes (Death’s Door) as they navigate their way into one of the area’s dozens of yards or marinas, to the port of Green Bay, or further south to Great Lakes ports like Milwaukee or Chicago.

Historically, Door County has been a maritime hub for Great Lakes shipping and fishing, and many of its villages and towns started out as tiny fishing ports. Among an array of fascinating offerings (including some of the area’s hundreds of known shipwrecks), museums trace the area’s commercial fishing tradition featuring the wooden fishing vessels and traditional fishing equipment of the area’s many commercial fisheries.

One such company featured on the tour was Bailey’s Harbor Fish Company. With its origins in the nineteenth century, the family-owned company still thrives as one of the area’s most significant commercial fishing companies. Company owners Dennis Hickey and Todd Stuth described to visitors how the company’s long history of sustainable fishing guides its future as it serves not only local markets, but Chicago, New York, and the Netherlands. The company’s foundation in cooperation with regional stakeholders means that its fresh fish is not the only thing in demand. The company has established such a reputation that its expertise is called on by state and federal agencies and universities to support research projects across the country.

Of course, a marine industry regardless of where it is requires maintenance facilities. Tour participants had the opportunity to visit the headquarters of the maritime industry’s eponymous Marine Travelift. Since creating the world’s first mobile boat hoist in the 1940s, Marine Travelift has grown to become the leader in marine industry mobile lifting and transport globally with over 4,500 units in operation today. The company designs and engineers each lift, tow motor, and transport in house to fit the specific needs of its clients, and provides bespoke solutions around the world via a global distributor network and expert technicians.

The highlight of the tour, however, was a behind the scenes look at the 63-acre Fincantieri Bay Shipbuilding site in Sturgeon Bay. Fincantieri Marine Group operates not one but two yards in Wisconsin, including Bay Shipbuilding. For one day each year, the massive complex opens its gates to the public for tours guided by the yard’s current and former shipbuilding professionals.

Bay Shipbuilding is famous for its construction of the Great Lakes steel industry’s monster bulk carriers, a few of which were available to view during the tour. The yard, however, boasts full-service construction and repair facilities for vessels across the spectrum of the maritime sector building and maintaining articulated tug barges, dredges, ferries, platform support vessels, as well as wind farm and specialty vessels. Bay Shipbuilding also supports U.S. Navy projects in cooperation with its sister yard across Green Bay in Marinette, Wisconsin.

The tour of Wisconsin’s Door Peninsula and its maritime attractions was a firsthand look at a hidden gem of the maritime industry. Nestled in a beautifully scenic area that caters to summer recreational travelers, the workforce and industrial capabilities of the region offer a glimpse, not just into the past, but also the influence of the Great Lakes region on the nation’s maritime future.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.