Stories that Live in the Present

The recession challenged people in Wisconsin and across the nation.  As the recovery continues, so does the discussion about work, education, what makes a good life, and how to create strong communities, as well as a strong state and nation. Read stories that explore the meaning and experience of work today, and the challenges and opportunities that we face.

The Working River: A Natural Resource

Canoe, Paddleboard and kayak in the Manitowoc RiverWhat is a river good for? Standing on the bank of any river, you can read the landscape for signs of life. Who uses the river today? How was it put to work throughout recent history? In the river, do you see a natural source of energy? A landscape of leisure? Or both?

Many rivers today have parks along their banks, complete with benches, even bike paths and fishing piers.  While today rivers may be easily thought of as places to relax, where kayaks and jet skis are as commonplace as ferries and tugboats once were, look closer and you can see that there is still plenty of work being done by those rivers.

Water is energy, and where there is energy, it can be put to work. Our state’s largest, most powerful rivers have provided the energy, and the setting, for significant industry and employment. Indeed, towns and cities are built along rivers to capitalize on their usefulness.

Reading the Landscape

Industry, jobs, and work have been part of the story of the state’s riverways for hundreds of years.  From the earliest days of Indian traders and fur trappers to more recently installed hydroelectric plants and factories, the state’s waterways have long connected local residents to international ones.  

The Wisconsin Maritime Museum has produced a brochure called “The Working River Today” as a guide for visitors to the Manitowoc River. As part of a series that includes three more brochures, the project was funded in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council. The guide provides local examples of how the state’s rivers have linked the Upper Midwest to waterways around the world.

The Museum regularly hosts events on the riverfront, such as concerts, festivals, and boat trips. They are using the river as a story-starter for understanding the area’s history, as well as a place for building community today. A group called the Friends of the Manitowoc River Watershed sometimes paddles in the same river alongside working barges.

Going with the Flow

“We got to watch the St. Marys Conquest turn around right in front of us.”

The Manitowoc River is a vibrant landscape. “As you walk along or paddle on the Manitowoc River today,” the brochure reads, “you won’t see a river crowded with ships or hear noisy hammers and saws.” What you will see, it promises, are “thriving companies like St. Mary’s Cement and the St. Mary’s Conquest barge unloading and storing thousands of tons of cement.” Through an understanding of these and other commodities, a much broader appreciation of the river, and the region, emerges.

The twelve silos of the St. Mary’s Cement Company together hold up to 45,000 tons of cement. At the company’s height, it employed 150 men. Today, there are generally about 8 employees. Barges named St. Marys Conquest and St. Marys Challenger come and go from the plant delivering cement from a sister plant in Michigan. 

After a beach clean-up and paddle trip with volunteers from the Friends of the Manitowoc River Watershed, Wendy Lutzke, the Maritime Museum’s Education Curator, described the river scene: “We got to watch the 437 foot vessel (St. Marys Conquest) turn around right in front of us and then we followed it all the way out to the mouth of the river. Now how’s that for watching history unfold right before your eyes?”


Photo by Steve Lutzke used with permission.