Aboard the Solomon Juneau
The tugboat harbored along the Riverwalk of the Milwaukee River exists as a monument to a fishing legacy--and as Mark Gubin's "floating Winnebago."
It’s becoming brisk on this afternoon, almost a portend of the long winter ahead. Pleasure boats of varying size putter up and down the Milwaukee River: speedboats, pontoons, large river cruisers and rowing teams all jockey for the middle lane. From Mark Gubin’s stern perch aboard the brawny fishing vessel called The Solomon Juneau, we watch the occasional drawbridge go slowly up and down. It delays traffic and diverts pedestrians along the Riverwalk, where they gape at the ancient red stalwart tugboat and its captain, who looks like Ernest Hemingway, sitting next to me. It’s a bit like sitting inside a museum exhibit.
“It’s just lousy with character,” says Gubin. “I mean look at all this stuff: that ‘Home Sweet Home’ sign came off an old stove and it just fit there. You know, things attract things. They really do. People come by and say, you know, I’ve got something in my garage or basement that you might like to have. Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t. You have to be careful.”
Before the 1947 re-build, it was just a hull and some scraps in the old Milwaukee Shipbuilding Co. yards to which a welder took a fancy, right after the WWII Victory Ship orders for the Froemming Brothers ceased. It was found in a sad shape around 1980, right before Gubin obtained it and fixed it up again. The vessel has seen several owners and several different names over the decades, but it’s current guardian says his naming of it was a matter of nautical whimsy.
“Solomon Juneau, the founder of our town, originally built a big ship to transport his furs to Chicago. Well, he built it out of green lumber—which is a stupid thing to do—and it went out on the lake and was lost. It was lost completely and they never found it—it could still be out there. So I thought okay, I’ll resurrect that. There’s no other reason really for naming it that, no deeper meaning. It was just something to do. Some of these other names you see, just over and over again, these cutesy kind of names having something to do with the water or something else—and I get so sick of seeing them some of these have to be 50 of the same name. So I thought I’d call it something dignified at least.”
The boat itself was originally parked on the Kinnickinnic River, not far from its place of origin. But Gubin says the river level kept getting shallower and shallower until soon he was sucking straight mud through the inlets that cool the diesel engine.
“It didn’t say anything about that in the instruction manual. It’s not supposed to be a mud-soaked engine,” he says.
After selling his part-ownership in the marina and finishing a successful career as an advertising photographer, Gubin felt the nature of the port was changing and he found his retirement pestered with nautical tourists asking questions. Luckily, one of his family’s longtime friends were offering cruises from the historic 1843 dock in downtown Milwaukee. They struck an accord to anchor the Solomon Juneau alongside the Voyageur, the Vista King and the historic Iroquois ships which make up the Milwaukee Boat Line. From there, the legend and decor of this outsider-meets-nautical art boat has grown.
For many years, it was a kind of party barge for Gubin to entertain family and friends out onto the waters of Lake Michigan. They would motor out to see the fireworks or he would take his son’s boy scout troop out to explore the rivers.
It still remains his “floating Winnebago—what the Coast Guard might call a ‘live-aboard’—but now it doesn’t go anywhere and I don’t put it away for winter. It’s got a 3/8” thick steel hull, meant to be an icebreaker. And it probably has a nice protective coating of zebra or conga mussels over that…I had some medical problems some years back, and it impoverished the spirit of wanting to take it out. Plus, when you have something that weighs 50 tons, it’s 56 feet long—you need some people that know what the hell they’re doing to help you.”
As amazing and wild as it looks from the outside, inside the Juneau, chambers and lower bunks are mysterious, faintly filled with diesel fumes and full of books. In the bow’s waterline bedchamber, a faux officer sits upright to scare off potential inebriates that slip past the gaze of the boat line staff, the bridge tenders and other watchful eyes. Gubin says that over the years, he’s gained a kind of whimsy over the fleeting existence of the boat’s decorations.
“It is what it is. Some things on here were built from things that floated down river after a storm, like those chairs I built up [from driftwood, positioned on the upper deck]. One of them got stolen, one of the benches got broke a little while ago…so I chain them up now. Most of the things are heavy-duty and not all that nautical, some of the hardware I got for cheap from Miller Compressing. That’s just part of the fun of it all is your imagination. There’s no real practical reason for having in the world for having it. That’s probably why I want it.”
The Solomon Juneau isn’t Gubin’s only claim to minor fame. He is also well-known for converting an old vaudevillian theater in Bay View into his home and studio. On the roof, right over the flight pattern of certain jets landing at Mitchell International, is a clear sign that states “WELCOME TO CLEVELAND.” Gubin is that kind of card.
Although Gubin keeps busy in retirement—building a porch for his daughter, playing with grandkids, and being dragged back for one more photoshoot—it is this metropolitan escape pod that he enjoys most, hanging out with friends and grilling up some steaks. The many, many lights aboard the Juneau snap on as night falls on the gently rocking landmark.