Different from any other tourist location on the Door Peninsula, Sturgeon Bay is the only city in the county, boasting a population of around 9,000. Also, the town leans on many blue-collar jobs, most notably that of Bay Shipbuilding, which has been in business for almost one hundred years, albeit under different titles. As a matter of fact, in its past, Sturgeon Bay has been home to a lot of shipbuilding, from Yachts, worth twenty times more money than I’ll make in my lifetime, to navy gunboats and minesweepers. Tourism is a relatively young beast in the city’s economic repertoire, but it is definitely a huge part of the town.
I decided a long time ago that I would blog about Sturgeon Bay, yet, it is tough to pull off, not crazy tough, but difficult. After all, I’ve worked in this city, my father was employed by Bay Ship and my grandfather was a foreman at Peterson Builders(A naval boat building contractor), blogging from a traveler’s perspective is tricky for those reasons. Still, there are resorts, being nonexistent in the Sturgeon Bay I knew as a child, museums and shops all geared toward luring tourism dollars into the city.
I drive into town and enjoy the view I always anticipate, as I turn the corner driving down Green Bay Rd(which turns into Madison Ave). A fairly historic street stretches towards the canal, as the old bridge and barges stand proudly in the background. I imagine any visitor introduced to this unique setting would be thrilled by a vista that screams historic shipbuilding town.
Sturgeon bay was once two cities, on one side of the canal was Sawyer and the other, of course, was Sturgeon Bay. I can only assume that is why there seem to be two different ‘main street’ portions. There are the small collection of old buildings that line Madison Ave, but the longer and more prominent stretch lies on Third Avenue, across the bridge.
The first thing that I do, as I have mentioned that Sturgeon Bay was a shipbuilding town, is check out the Door County Maritime Museum. If you have read any of my previous blogs, you might have stumbled across my piece on the Wisconsin Maritime Museum, a museum in Manitowoc Wisconsin. While the museum here is nice, the exhibits are nowhere near the ones in Manitowoc. That being said, there is still a lot of cool features that gain my interest.
The first floor has an antique hard-hat diving suit, which looks like an astronaut’s gear tailored with metal and cloth. Of course, there is an exhibit chronicling the Shipbuilding past of Sturgeon Bay. Unfortunately, there really are not many artifacts to accompany the great information displayed. Information is everywhere, classic nuts and bolts are harder to come by these days.
The Second floor features ship telegraphs, an instrument used to send instructions from the captain on the bridge to the engine room. Also, a cool lighthouse exhibit gives info on Door County’s many lighthouses. I was fairly surprised to count twelve that were listed, I haven’t toured a single one. Lastly, and disappointingly, they have a tug boat tour that, on this day, was not available.
I exit the museum and trek along the buildings of Madison Ave. It’s a curious conglomeration, as I spend a few minutes in an antique store that reminds me more of a thrift shop. I cruise up the hill and then turn back, making my way to the Old Bridge, passing the Bridge Port Resort and the impressive structure of Sonny’s Pizza as I cross the Canal.
There are two bridges in town. There is the younger Oregon street bridge, maybe a decade old or so, I’m not really sure as to the age. More interestingly there is this bridge, a historic relic that, when the new bridge was being constructed, was in danger of being torn down. In desperate need of repair, many of the community came together and organized fund-raisers, including a music festival that is held in the city to this day to save this fun little testament of time, which has stood since 1931. I have to say, it is a great decision, as it fits in with the historic downtown buildings of third avenue.
Third avenue stretches for several blocks, having many points of interest. There are shops that carry Door County T-shirts, a local hardware store, taverns, restaurants, the Third Avenue Play House and even a Younkers. Basically, the ‘Main Street’ of Sturgeon Bay is alive with commerce.
They close this street once a year, during september, for a festival known as Harvest Fest. Vendors and Bands would be scattered along the street, as at one end of the road a giant classic car show would display everything from 64 1/2 Mustangs to 1990 Ferrari Testarosas. Of course, this is not the week and third avenue appears as any historic small town ‘main street’ would.
As I stroll to the end of Third Avenue, I come across Center Pointe Marina. There are multiple Marinas in Sturgeon Bay, some of the boats docked at these stations are ridiculously stately. Sturgeon Bay would be a great stop on a Great lakes tour, as the city is split by a canal that connects Green Bay and Lake Michigan.
The canal itself, built between the years of 1872 and 1882, is an interesting bit of history. It shaved the distance for the ships sailing west into Green Bay, saving them from sailing through a harrowing corridor known as Death’s Door, a treacherous stretch of water that aptly gave the peninsula its name (Door County) For it’s time, the feat of digging this 7 mile canal is very impressive considering the technological limitations of the era. Today, the corridor still serves a vital role in Sturgeon Bay’s economy.
During the summer, there are boat tours, carriage rides and many other fun attractions in Sturgeon Bay’s historic downtown. I think the canal, along with the yachts, tugs, Coast Guard ships, and freighters, set it apart from many other cities. I also have to mention that there are well manicured city parks set in this down town. Like I said, this place is different from the other tourist towns in Door County, yet, still great for sightseeing and relaxing.