Great Lakes Maritime History Project

URLs to browse or search the collections

The state of Wisconsin has a proud and colorful history. One of its richest and most romantic chapters is its maritime history, staged on the waters of Lake Michigan, Lake Superior, on hundreds of smaller lakes and a whole network of rivers. Much of that fascinating story has been captured in photography and art and this material brings to the public eye some of its highlights.

Maritime commerce in what is now Wisconsin has its roots in the days of the French fur trade. It was only after the War of 1812 however, that the border disputes were settled between the United States and Britain and permanent settlement began; large-scale commercial shipping was quick to follow.

Wisconsin pioneers of the 1830s and ’40s, largely Irish, German and Scandinavian immigrants, came West on paddlewheel steamboats. Lumber from Wisconsin’s forests was ferried to the markets of the East by hundreds of tall sailing ships. Fleets of swift “propellers” brought manufactured goods from the Atlantic states to burgeoning Wisconsin cities in the Civil War era, and took back grain and flour and dairy products from Badger State farms. Since the 1860s, natural resources mined in Wisconsin have been transported to distant cities and steel mills by distinctive Great Lakes bulk freighters. The ports of Lake Michigan and Lake Superior became favorite destinations for passenger cruise liners before the end of the Nineteenth Century. And more recently, the St. Lawrence Seaway has brought to Wisconsin’s ports literally hundreds of picturesque ocean ships each year.

The state’s maritime history is characterized by proud achievements too numerous to tell, but it has also been marred by tragedy. Scores of ships have been lost in the treacherous waters of the big Lakes and hundreds of lives cut short. Collisions, fires, groundings and founderings have taken an enormous toll among the ships of the Great Lakes.

The watercraft described in this website are some of the vessels that have made Wisconsin’s history so rich. They also represent a sampling of the maritime resources in Wisconsin’s libraries and universities.

Information about the collections

Click to read Information about the collections

The Milwaukee Public Library houses the Great Lakes Marine Collection. This collection contains over 7,000 files on ships that sailed since 1679 and some that sail on the Great Lakes today. Vessels included are diesel-powered, sailing ships, barges, cargo vessels, passenger boats, military vessels, and pleasure craft.

The collection was built on the Herman G. Runge Collection, acquired by the library in 1959. Runge devoted almost 70 years of his life to collecting and preserving information on all aspects of marine activities on the Great Lakes. For years he journeyed to all the principal lake ports, visiting with government and shipping officials, captains and crews of lake boat photographers and fellow collectors. At the same time he kept up a heavy correspondence with other compilers, government agencies and shipping lines. When he died on March 16, 1958, he had become indisputably one of the most knowledgeable and colorful collectors on the lakes. Staff of the Humanities Room continuously updates the Great Lakes Ship Files, some of which have grown to include dozens of items.

Additional notable donors include John Nelson, John P. Kane, Harry Bethune Jr., Edwin Wilson, Christopher G. Winscher and Lewis Buttles. Rose Kramer’s 20,000 bulk carrier photos arrived in 1986. Significant additions to the documentary materials have come from the Kalmbach Publishing Company, Ralph Friedmann, H.E.Stephenson, Louis Quarles, Edmund Fitzgerald, Harry Thorpe Jr., the Milwaukee Harbor Commission and Courtland Conlee. Milwaukee Public Library staff have cataloged this collection on OCLC, and each record contains detailed information on individual files.

Milwaukee Public Library and Wisconsin Marine Historical Society

814 West Wisconsin Avenue
Milwaukee, WI 53233-2385
Phone: (414-286-3216)
Maritime web site:

Wisconsin Historical Society

The Wisconsin Historical Society is one of the nation’s largest American history research centers, with nearly 4 million published items and more than 100,000 cubic feet of manuscripts, photos, and other unpublished records in its collections. The materials it contributed to this project are drawn largely from its Visual Materials Collections. Other marine history resources can be found as part of its Wis. Local History & Biography Articles Web site, which contains 50,000 pages of newspaper stories printed between 1850-1950. Descriptions of historic buildings and sites important to maritime life are also included in two other Society databases: the Wis. Architecture & History Inventory and the Wis. Register of Historic Places.

The Society’s Underwater Archaeologist’s Office has a collection of 700 ship files which includes federal enrollment records and other information. This office also makes available a shipwreck database which includes 700 records and condenses much of the information in the ship files, and the Door County Advocate Vessel Index, a newspaper index in database format. Underwater photographs and video footage are available; some have been scanned and made available through a Web site managed by the Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute Communications Office and the Underwater Archeology of the Wisconsin State Historical Society, Division of Historic Preservation. The Seagrant website can be viewed at

For inquiries about material contributed by the Wisconsin Historical Society to this project, or for further information about Society programs and collections, contact Michael Edmonds or visit the Historical Society’s Web site at

Wisconsin Historical Society

816 State Street, Room 230
Madison, WI 53706-1482
Michael Edmonds, Director (608-264-6538)
Underwater Archaeologist (608-221-5909)
Maritime web site:

University of Wisconsin – La Crosse

The Special Collections Department of Murphy Library, UW-La Crosse holds one of the nation’s largest photograph collections of inland river steamboats and river life. The collection includes over 45,000 images that date from the 1850s to the present. The bulk of the collection is of individual river steamboats. A master data file complements the image collection which is arranged primarily by boat name. Special emphasis is placed on the Mississippi River and its tributary system. In addition to the steamboat photographs, the collection also includes images of life along the river: locks and dams, waterfronts, swimming, clamming, fishing, and picnics.

University of Wisconsin – La Crosse Murphy Library

1631 Pine Street
La Crosse, WI 54601
Phone: (608-785-8511) Fax: 608-785-8639
Email Special Collections at:
Hours: Academic year: M-F, 10-5; Wednesday, 7-9 p.m.; Saturdays, 1-4 p.m.
During semester breaks and summer school hours are limited to Monday-Thursday, 12:00 – 3:30 p.m. If a visit is anticipated it is always advisable to call ahead at 608-785-8511 for information on hours, parking, and availability of staff and desired photographs.
University of Wisconsin – La Crosse Murphy Library Webpage

University of Wisconsin – Superior

The Lake Superior Maritime Collections Archives (LSMCA) at UW-Superior contains unique resources for the study of maritime history on the upper Great Lakes. The focus of the Collection is primarily on Lake Superior and its environs, especially the twin ports of Superior (WI) and Duluth MN), as well as the work of the Corps of Engineers’ office in Duluth, MN. Additional emphases of the Collection also extend, because of the international nature of trade, to the lower Great Lakes and beyond. These sources are intended to support UW-Superior faculty and student research, as well as the needs of the Lake Superior Marine Visitors Center, and the broader communities of the Twin Ports and Maritime historians and hobbyists. Some of the series within the collection include 6,400 Ship files; charts & maps; “subject” files such as “lighthouses” or “Keweenaw Waterway”; vessel log books and enrollments; blueprints; and statistics.

University of Wisconsin – Superior

Jim Dan Hill Library
Attn: Archives
Belknap & Catlin
Box 2000
Superior, WI 54880
Laura Jacobs, archivist — (715) 394 8359
Maritime web site:
University of Wisconsin – Superior Library Homepage

Door County Maritime Museum, Inc.

The Door County Maritime Museum contributed many of the lighthouse images to this site. Home to shipbuilding from the beginning of the 20th century, Sturgeon Bay has had shipyards producing fishing trawlers, Navy vessels, ore carriers and some of the finest yachts in the world. Permanent exhibits and revolving exhibits are included in our galleries. The Baumgartner Gallery contains scale models of boats and ships built in Sturgeon Bay including half-hull or plating models, corporate models and folk art models. Also found in this gallery is “Sentinels of the Shore,” an exhibit on the area lighthouses with a full size replica of the lantern room of Sherwood Point lighthouse. The Founders Gallery contains a chronological history of shipbuilding beginning in mid 1800 with Indian dugouts and birch bark canoes and continues to the present, including exhibits of the late 1800s Great Lakes lumber schooners; the early 1900 shipyards of Sturgeon Bay; the 1940-1970s war efforts of Sturgeon Bay shipbuilders; and present-day shipbuilding in Sturgeon Bay. Join in the interactive videos showing side launches of different vessels. The Peterson Gallery contains an extensive exhibit on the raising of the George E. Humphrey, one of the largest ships to ever have been salvaged, refitted and sailed.

Door County Maritime Museum, Inc.

120 N. Madison Ave.
Sturgeon Bay, WI 54235
Door County Maritime Museum, Inc. Website

Other Links

Wisconsin’s Great Lakes Shipwrecks, Wisconsin Historical Society:
Historical Collections of the Great Lakes, Bowling Green State University:
History and Development of Great Lakes Water Craft, Minnesota Historical Society:
Great Lakes Industrial History Center at the Cleveland Digital Library:
Marine Historical Society of Detroit:
Marine Museum of the Great Lakes (Kingson, Ontario)
Steamship William G. Mather Museum, Cleveland, Ohio:

Wisconsin Collaborative Library and Museum Project
Collaborative Efforts

Technical consultation, scanning, site design and implementation:
University of Wisconsin – Madison Libraries.

Content selection:
Wisconsin Historical Society
University of Wisconsin, La Crosse – Murphy Library, Special Collections
University of Wisconsin – Superior, Jim Dan Hill Library
Milwaukee Public Library/Wisconsin Marine Historical Society
Door County Maritime Historical Society


Funding and project coordination:
Department of Public Instruction, Division for Libraries, Technology and Community Learning.