Graham Kilmer

Marine Historical Society Launches ‘Little Boat I’ in Lake Michigan

Local group keeps maritime history alive, including by launching model boats.

By - Sep 23rd, 2023 12:26 pm

Little Toot I. Photo by Graham Kilmer.

The Wisconsin Marine Historical Society launched a boat Thursday just outside the Milwaukee Harbor. Well, a model boat, that is.

The Little Toot I was set down in the water Thursday at approximately 1:50 p.m. The wooden model boat is intended as a sort of “message in a bottle.” Inscribed on the hull of the little craft are a few words from the society asking whoever discovers it to contact the society and tell them where the boat was found.

Inspiration for this little boat came from a 2020 story about a similar boat found on the shore of Lake Superior. It was made and launched by students and teachers from Lakewood Elementary School in Duluth, Minn. 27 years earlier. As fans of marine history, the society members decided to try something similar in Lake Michigan.

The Wisconsin Marine Historical Society is one of the smaller, lesser-known historical societies, even in Wisconsin, and its members will tell you as much. They are a group of maritime history enthusiasts, ranging from veteran sailors to complete novices to former scuba divers who fell under the spell of this niche area of history after diving among shipwrecks.

The organization’s “secret” headquarters and museum, as they like to call it, is located in the downtown Central Library of the Milwaukee Public Library. It features an archive of Wisconsin marine history the society is dedicated to maintaining, with a compendium of news clippings, vessel records, maps, drawings, nautical charts and photographs.

Most of this collection was bequeathed to the library in 1958 by Herman Runge, who was a local expert on maritime history and whose collection had “international renown,” according to the library. The historical society was created to oversee the collection. Among its founding members was Edmund Fitzgerald, a former Chairman of Northwestern Mutual, whose name was given to the shipping freighter that famously sank in Lake Superior.

The society no longer has members or patrons among the city’s business or civic leaders. With fewer than 200 dues-paying members the organization is keeping this specific history alive with events and a monthly newsletter.

Jim Heinz, the society’s scribe, chronicles their activities and blogs about maritime history, drawing information from the extensive archive. Heinz is a natural storyteller and can rattle off a yarn about, for example, the Prinz Wilhelm V that sank off the coast of Milwaukee, and the failed salvage of the boat that, as he tells it, is only a few degrees removed from the film career of Robert DeNiro. It has to do with a salvager, a car accident, a diving equipment company and the 2000 movie Men of Honor.

Heinz was, of course, there for the launch of the Little Toot I Thursday, and took notes for a post and perhaps the newsletter. Carl Eisenberg, president of the society was also there. Eisenberg is a lifelong sailor. When he came to Milwaukee in the early 1970s he had a boat here before he had a house, he told Urban Milwaukee.

Eisenberg, in boat shoes and his personal life vest, recounted with enthusiasm previous Little Toot launches. On her maiden voyage, Little Toot I came ashore near Sheridan Park. The boat was found by a man walking his dog and was nearly covered by pieces of a bluff that had broken off. There was also a Little Toot launched in Lake Superior by a member who works on Great Lakes ships.

The boats have been made by the society’s resident shipwright, Joe Gregory. He said they resemble a tugboat, but are an original design, just for the society. Gregory, Eisenberg and Heinz were joined by their fellow society members, Jan Hetzl, Vice President Todd Gordon and Dan Patrinos for the second launch of the Little Toot I.

The crew of six society members and one journalist were piloted out of the Milwaukee harbor in a motorboat by Teresa Coronado, program director of the Milwaukee Community Sailing Center, which was facilitating the boat launch. The Little Toot I was launched for a second time under “light air,” which is a sailing term that means the wind was under 12 knots, Coronado explained. And given the air and the lake currents, Coronado said Little Toot I would likely float southeast. The little boat could be on its way to Chicago or Indiana Harbor, society members speculated.

Gregory gently plopped the little boat into the water. “Safe travels,” he said.

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Categories: MKE County

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