SS Milwaukee Clipper museum ship provides glimpse into luxury Great Lakes sailing

August 23, 2023

SS Milwaukee Clipper museum ship provides glimpse into luxury Great Lakes sailing

By Rob Alway, Editor-in-Chief

This history travelogue is sponsored by House of Flavors Restaurant of Ludington.

MUSKEGON — Long before Charles Conrad converted the SS Badger from a dominantly rail car cross lake service to an exclusively motor vehicle and passenger service, the SS Milwaukee Clipper served the Great Lakes carrying automobiles and people. The 119 year old ship is now a museum ship, docked at the former Grand Trunk Railroad dock in Muskegon’s Lakeside neighborhood, within site of the modern Lake Express Carferry. 

The Milwaukee Clipper was originally christened as the SS Juniata. It was built by the American Shipbuilding Company in Cleveland, Ohio for the Anchor Line, the marine division of the Pennsylvania Railroad. It was launched on Dec. 22, 1904. The ship originally consisted of a riveted steel hull and a wooden superstructure. It carried passengers and freight for the Pennsylvania Railroad between Buffalo, NY and Duluth, Minn. until 1915. 

In 1915, the Pennsylvania Railroad sold its Anchor Line and four other railroad-owned company fleets to the newly formed Great Lakes Transit Corporation. The Juniata continued to operate on its same route for 20 more years, with the exception of 1933 when it carried passengers to and from the Chicago World’s Fair. The ship was laid up in 1936 due to the Great Depression and also regulations on wooden passenger ships following the tragedy of the SS Morro Castle, an American ocean liner that caught fire and ran aground on Sept. 8, 1934 en route from Havana, Cuba to New York City. The disaster resulted in the loss of 137 passengers and crew. The ship was 4 years old. 

The Juniata remained moored in Buffalo until 1940 when Wisconsin & Michigan Steamship Co., a subsidiary of Sand Products Corp. of Detroit, purchased the ship. Sand Products Corp. was founded in 1930 by Max McKee. The company continues to operate today, now based in Muskegon. The company also owns West Michigan Dock & Market Corp. (also known as the Mart Dock), along with the World War II museum ship LST 393 (see related story here). 

The Juniata was brought to the Manitowoc Shipbuilding Company in Manitowoc, Wis. where it was modernized. Major renovations included converting the coal boilers to fuel oil and removing the wooden superstructure and replacing it will steel. The ship received a streamlined look and included a false forward stack. The ship also included air conditioned staterooms, a children’s playroom, a movie theater, dance floor, bar cafeteria, lounges, sports deck, soda fountain, and the capacity to carry 120 automobiles. 

On June 2, 1941, the ship was christened the Milwaukee Clipper by Patricia McKee, daughter of Max McKee. It made its maiden voyage from Milwaukee to Muskegon the following day. In Muskegon, it was docked at the Mart Dock, just a few blocks from downtown. It continued to sail that route for 29 years. 

In 1948, Sand Products Corp. purchased the LST-393 and renamed it Route 16 (named after the highway that ran from Detroit to Muskegon and then continued in Milwaukee). That ship served alongside the Milwaukee Clipper transporting mostly new vehicles back and forth between Muskegon and Milwaukee. It operated three years longer than the Clipper, ending its service in 1973. 

Three months before the Miwaukee Clipper was christened, another famous Lake Michigan carferry had its maiden voyage. The SS City of Midland 41, owned by the Pere Marquette Railroad, was built approximately the same time as the Clipper received its renovations. Construction of the Midland began in 1940 and it was launched on Sept. 18, 1940 with its maiden voyage on March 12, 1941. 

SS City of Midland 41

“There are many similarities between the design of the Clipper and the 41,” said Brock Johnson, ship operations manager of SS Milwaukee Clipper Preservation, Inc. “Our organization actually acquired several parts of the Midland when it was being converted to a barge (now the Pere Marquette 41) at the Mart Dock. It’s kind of neat to know that a part of the history of that great ship — one of the favorites of carferry crews and enthusiasts — is now on the Clipper and being preserved.” 

The Clipper is 361 feet long with a beam of 45 feet. It has six decks. It is equipped with an American quadruple expansion steam engine with a single screw (propeller) and traveled up to 18 knots per hour (21 mph). It has 36 state rooms. It could carry up to 900 passengers. 

The Midland was 406 feet long with a beam of 53.2 feet. It was equipped with two Skinner Engine Company unaflow engines and travelled up to 17.4 knots per hour (20 mph). It could hold 50 automobiles and 34 freight cars. It had 72 staterooms. It could carry up to 376 passengers.

The SS Badger began service in 1953. It is 410 feet long with a beam of 59 feet, 6 inches. It is equipped with two four-cylinder compound Skinner Unaflow steam engines and can travel up to 21 knots per hour (24 mph). 

The Clipper ended its service in 1970, though it is reported that that year was also its best financial year. Sand Products had plans to replace the ship with the larger Aquarama but negotiations regarding dredging the Milwaukee harbor for the Aquarama failed. 

Brock Johnson of Milwaukee Clipper Preservation

The Clipper was purchased by James Gillon, who operated a business out of Chicago’s Navy Pier (which was not a developed tourist attraction like it is now). The new company’s plan was to operate the Clipper on a route from Chicago to Milwaukee. Financial backing fell through and the Clipper was seized by the U.S. Marshals. Following several court cases it was returned to Gillon and towed to Navy Pier in 1980 where it was going to be used as a museum ship. 

The ship received status as being listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983. In 1989 it was designated a National Historic Landmark. In 1990 it was sold to the City of Hammond, Indiana where it served as a centerpiece for a new marina. It was then replaced by a new casino ship and towed to the south side of Chicago, laid up on the Calumet River. During that time, it suffered much from looting and vandalism. 

In December 1997, SS Milwaukee Clipper Preservation, Inc. and towed to the former Grant Trunk Railroad carferry docks in Muskegon. Since that time, the all-volunteer organization has worked to preserve the ship. 

Over the past 26 years, the organization has worked diligently to restore the ship. While many artifacts disappeared over the years, the organization was blessed that much of the furniture was removed before it was sold out of Muskegon, and placed in a local warehouse. That furniture, most made in the late 1930s, has now made its way back to the ship. 

The ship is open for tours Thursday through Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m. It is located at 2098 Lakeshore Dr. The cost is $10 for adults and $5 for children.  The ship often holds special events and fundraisers. Plans are also underway for overnight stays in the ship’s staterooms. 

Watch its Facebook page or website for details.

MiTravelogue by Rob Alway explores various sites around Michigan and beyond. 

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