Port Milwaukee is one of several U.S. ports around the Great Lakes that contribute significantly to the local, regional and national economies. While they differ in size and cargo from many U.S. coastal ports, they are equally important.
The Port of Milwaukee (Port Milwaukee) is located on the western shore of Lake Michigan; it is the only port on the lake that is approved to serve the Mississippi River inland waterway system. It offers direct river barge access from the port to the Illinois River, a key connection between other U.S. ports on the Gulf of Mexico and the Great Lakes region. Port Milwaukee also provides access to the St. Lawrence Seaway inland waterway system.
Like several other Great Lakes ports, Port Milwaukee serves as a regional transportation and distribution center. Its primary markets include Wisconsin, northern and western Illinois and eastern Minnesota. Cargo to/from Port Milwaukee is also cost-effective for shippers in Indiana, Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, as well as the western Canadian provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
The port has 16 berths; each is capable of handling vessels with a maximum draft of 26.5 feet at normal water conditions and a length of 1,000 feet. In addition, the port has two dedicated barge berths with drafts in excess of 18 feet.
Milwaukee’s history as a Great Lakes port began in 1835, when the first commercial cargo vessel called at the new village. Milwaukee was settled in part because of its access to the “western frontier” via the Milwaukee, Menomonee and Kinnickinnic rivers, all of which flow into Lake Michigan at a central point in Milwaukee harbor. Over the ensuing years, the three rivers have been improved with dock facilities and deepened/expanded by dredging and channel improvements.
Milwaukee’s leaders saw the industrial value of its inner harbor, but devised a comprehensive plan to develop an outer harbor under municipal control. They moved to purchase strategic lakefront areas rather than have just the crowded inner harbor.
Improvements to the harbor date to 1857, when a new harbor entrance (the “Straight Cut”) was finished. A new outlet a half-mile north of the mouth of the Milwaukee River was constructed.
Congress chose Milwaukee to be a “Harbor of Refuge” in 1881, and appropriated money to extend the harbor’s breakwater. Succeeding sessions of Congress appropriated additional funds to complete the extension.
The early 1900s
Milwaukee Mayor David S. Rose recommended in 1900 that a system of docks and terminals be constructed in deep water because the narrow and shallow rivers were becoming inadequate to meet the demands of increased shipping. Over the next five years, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and citizen panels made recommendations regarding deepening the inner harbor’s channels and creating two turning basins. Although the city acquired some of the land needed for the projects, not much else was accomplished.
The Milwaukee Common Council (city council) sought to move forward in May 1908. It voted in favor of an outer harbor and requested that the federal government conduct a preliminary survey.
Congress ordered another survey of the Milwaukee outer harbor project in 1909. The Corps of Engineers’ report on the preliminary survey recommended that a “plan and estimate of an outer harbor be prepared,” because it “was probable that such a harbor would be needed in the not far distant future.”
Over the next few years, competing factions (those in favor of an outer harbor and those against) were able to get very little done. Finally, in October 1912, a new Harbor Commission was appointed by the mayor (the first commission, appointed a few years earlier, was declared illegal). The Commission urged the acquisition of Jones Island for terminal development. On July 7, 1913 the Common Council appropriated funds for that purpose.
During its term, the Harbor Commission oversaw a number of construction projects (including a breakwater along Lake Michigan’s shore and bulk heading in the lake to protect the fill on the outside of Jones Island); established a uniform system of harbor lines; generated a survey by the federal government to determine whether additional breakwater protection was needed; and lobbied the Wisconsin legislature to pass legislation granting authority to the city to create a Board of Harbor Commissioners with the authority to plan harbor and waterway improvements.
With the approval of the Wisconsin legislature, the Milwaukee Common Council created the Board of Harbor Commissioners on June 1, 1920. The Board of Harbor Commissioners had the authority to “employ personnel and to award contracts for the operation and maintenance of the harbor.” However, any improvements that had a price tag were subject to Common Council approval.
The Board’s five members were selected by the mayor for three-year terms. William George Bruce was elected chairman of the new commission, and then he held that position for 38 years.
During the 1920s, a number of projects were completed. Examples include the addition of two rows of anchorage on Jones Island, purchases of additional land (for a railroad interchange yard) and dredging and filling to expand Jones Island.
The port today
Port Milwaukee is a department of the Milwaukee city government. Port Milwaukee today is governed by a seven-member Board of Harbor Commissioners (BHC), a panel appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the Common Council. The BHC supervises the day-to-day operations of Port Milwaukee, including activities such as: harbor development/improvement; the use of Port Milwaukee’s North Harbor Tract for recreation; and leases of harbor land and facilities.
The port’s economic impact
In 2017 (latest data available) Port Milwaukee’s maritime cargo and vessel activity generated over $100 million in business revenue for the city and the region’s economy. Approximately 2.4 million tons of different types of cargo moves through Port Milwaukee annually.
A variety of breakbulk and non-containerized cargo is handled by the port, including “steel (including coils, plate and long products), wind turbine components (including towers, nacelles, blades and generators), brewery tanks, mining equipment, yachts, forest products, transformers, farm and construction machinery, manufacturing equipment, bagged materials,”
Within the port complex there are more than 330,000 square feet of “covered warehouse space for bulk, steel and general cargoes” with about 30,000 square feet of climate-controlled space. The port’s general cargo piers have connections to both Union Pacific and Canadian Pacific railroads. The railroads provide “direct pier delivery at all port facilities as well as necessary switching services on a daily basis.” In addition, the port owns and maintains 14 miles of its own rail track; this rail system gives continuous service and connectivity to the railroads that serve the port.
Interstate 94/Interstate 794 leads directly into the port. This provides trucks delay-free pickup and delivery of commodities. There are direct exit/entrance ramps that access the port, so reaching the interstate from the port’s terminals takes less than five minutes. The port also has scales on-site for trucks.
The port has “multiple facilities and over 50 acres dedicated to dry bulk storage handling, including four storage domes totaling 50,000 tons of storage capacity.” Among the port’s dry bulk handling services are: “storage and stockpiling; direct transfer service to trucks, railroads and barges; vessel loading and unloading; packaging; palletizing; and processing.”
Port Milwaukee’s bulk stevedore is Milwaukee Bulk Terminals. It handles numerous dry bulk materials, including: “salt (various grades used for chemicals, roadways and water softening), cement, ash, grain (including corn and soy), limestone, slag, fertilizers and other aggregates.”
The port has a City Heavy Lift Dock; its lifting capabilities allow it to deal with diverse cargoes. The Port’s Stiff Leg Derrick can lift 440,000 pounds at a 52-foot radius. Depending on the cargo, the port can add to the Stiff Leg Derrick’s heavy lift capacity by using additional crawler cranes, including lifting capabilities up to 300 tons. Because the crawler cranes are mobile, they can be moved to serve all of the port’s Seaway draft vessel berths.
The port’s Liquid Cargo Pier can load/unload barges and tankers carrying liquid bulk products. The pier has been dredged to maximum Seaway depth. In addition, pipelines lead from the pier to several marine terminals. The port also has “approximately 300,000 barrels of bulk liquid storage capacity, including service capabilities via vessel, pipeline, rail and truck.”
Foreign Trade Zone
Foreign Trade Zone (FTZ) 41 is located at Port Milwaukee. With the FTZ, the “impacts of import duties may be minimized in order to keep U.S. companies competitive in a global marketplace.” The FTZ’s focused territory is the 12 counties of southeastern Wisconsin.
Despite damage from flooding as a result of unusually high water levels on Lake Michigan and the global pandemic, Port Milwaukee “finished 2020 with its highest annual cargo volume in the past seven years.” Agricultural exports and construction materials helped lead an increase of more than 5% in overall tonnage for the port and adjacent private docks. Tonnage in 2020 was ahead of the five-year and 10-year averages for Port Milwaukee.
In addition, the port had other positive news during 2020. Viking Cruises announced that its Expedition cruises will begin using the port “as a major Great Lakes turn-around destination beginning in 2022.” In addition, Pearl Seas Cruises signed a new agreement for “its long-term cruise operations in Milwaukee,” the Delong Co. announced it will build the port’s new $31+ million agricultural export facility, and Michels Corp. signed a new lease to expand its marine construction operation.
Author’s note: Many thanks to Port Milwaukee’s website, Facebook and Twitter pages for information, facts and figures and photographs.