Milwaukee Clipper Heading To Mart Dock

November 2, 2007
| By Pete Daly |
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MUSKEGON — The venerable S.S. Milwaukee Clipper is going back to work as a tourist attraction and group event facility at the Mart Dock on the Muskegon Lake waterfront downtown.

Dr. Ray Hilt, president of the nonprofit group called S.S. Milwaukee Clipper Preservation Inc., said the group has reached a lease agreement with the owners of the Mart Dock and will be berthing the Clipper there near the LST-393 and the Port City Princess excursion boat. For almost 10 years, the Clipper has been tied up at the so-called Grand Trunk docks about two miles away, off Lakeshore Drive at McCracken Street.

The Clipper will be towed — perhaps this fall — to the Mart Dock for the 2008 tourist season, said Hilt.

The 361-foot ship was originally christened Juniata when built in 1904 in Cleveland for passenger and freight service on the Great Lakes. For years it carried up to 350 passengers in staterooms on its regular route from Buffalo, N.Y., to Duluth, Minn. In 1940 the Sand Products Corp. of Detroit bought the Juniata, had it rebuilt and rechristened the S.S. Milwaukee Clipper, and put the vessel into car ferry service from the Mart Dock to Milwaukee. Sand Products still owns the subsidiary that operates the Mart Dock, West Michigan Dock & Market Corp.

In 1970 the Clipper ended its service between Muskegon and Milwaukee. In 1977 it was sold and moved to Navy Pier in Chicago, where the ship was operated as a maritime museum and convention facility. In 1989 it was designated a National Historic Landmark and moved the next year to Hammond, Ind., where it was used as a floating restaurant. In 1996 it had to be moved out of the Hammond Marina to make way for a new casino boat and was offered for sale. The Milwaukee Clipper Preservation group acquired it in 1997 and brought her back to Muskegon.

The Preservation group, consisting of all volunteers, wanted to restore the Clipper but first had to find a place on Muskegon Lake to berth it, which isn't easy for a vessel of its size. Hilt gives credit to Andrie Inc., which owns the former Grand Trunk Railroad docks, for providing a "temporary" place to tie up the Clipper. "Temporary" ended up lasting almost 10 years, but without it, the Clipper would have been broken up for scrap.

Over the years, the volunteers did restore it as much as the budget allowed. "When we started, she was a real derelict," said Hilt.

Although the ship no longer meets maritime requirements for carrying passengers, “She's not a derelict anymore," said Hilt.

The ship had been opened for tours at the Grand Trunk docks, but city codes for public facilities limited the number of people on board to 50 at a time. Hilt also noted that the Grand Trunk docks are off the beaten path. People couldn't find the Clipper to take the tour, even when they were looking for it, he said.

"We probably only had a couple thousand people" tour the ship annually in recent years, said Hilt. "We know we are going to do a lot better than that" at the Mart Dock. In addition to tours, the Preservation group will be operating the Clipper as a venue for wedding receptions, corporate meetings and events, conventions, school reunions, and a place to view the annual fireworks shows over Muskegon Lake. There is also an onboard movie theater that seats 118, a dance floor and a couple of bars.

In recent years, the group tried to make arrangements for berthing the Clipper at the city marina, "but we finally gave up. Too much money," said Hilt.

The Clipper may be moving downtown to a much better location for tourist traffic, but its volunteers aren't out of the woods yet. Now, said Hilt, they still have to raise money for "infrastructure" required to meet city codes for allowing large public groups on board. In addition to water, sewer and electrical, they may even have to build a structure next to the ship providing a public elevator and emergency exits.

"We have to raise a couple hundred thousand dollars now to put all this infrastructure on the dock," said Hilt, adding the group has $26,000 already.

"We expect to get some private donations, and further down the line we expect to get some grants," he added.

Hilt would not divulge the amount of the lease for using the Mart Dock, "but if (the Clipper) does half as well as we think it will do, we won't have a problem."

Dan Weikel,  president of the USS LST 393 Preservation Association, said as many as 10,000 visitors may have taken the tour of the historic World War II invasion craft this past tourist season, only its second. The boat was open every day from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and charged $5 for adults and $3 for students. The tourists were mainly from Michigan but also included people from at least eight foreign countries.

There were also 32 group rentals of the LST 393. Those ranged from wedding receptions to dances, a school group of 1,900 kids, and a corporate party with 1,000 guests.

"We are completely self-sufficient," said Weikel.  "What we take in — in events, tours and donations — sustains us," he said. He would not reveal how much the group brings in, but noted that all work is done by unpaid volunteers. The Community Foundation for Muskegon County also helped with a grant.

Weikel said the LST 393 volunteers are looking forward to the Milwaukee Clipper joining them at the Mart Dock.

With the Port City Princess, which carries up to 150 passengers at a time on sight-seeing cruises, Weikel said, "There will be three ships there now. We feel the three of us are all going to feed off each other. We think we will be a destination."

Max B. McKee, CEO of Sand Products Corp., said the three vessels together "are just going to help each other, and make downtown Muskegon more of a tourist destination."

A few miles to the west, on the Muskegon Lake Channel, is probably the most famous historic warship berthed in Michigan: the submarine USS Silversides. Its harrowing combat missions in the Pacific were featured in a famous Hollywood film, "Destination Tokyo." The Silversides is also a popular tourist attraction.

Weikel said the group would "love" to have the Silversides berthed close to the other three historic vessels at the Mart Dock, to make the downtown waterfront even more of a tourist magnet.

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