Picturesque Port Washington   « Back

Author: Jodie Jacobs
Source: Lakeland Boating

June 7, 2017

Boaters in the know head to Port Washington, Wisconsin for terrific fishing. But part of the fun of visiting for the first time is exploring the village’s delightful shops, food, New England charm and lighthouses, and then passing the discovery along to other boaters.

Wisconsin’s Lake Michigan coastline appears to be fairly quiet between Milwaukee and Sheboygan, but don’t be lulled into cruising past Port Washington, a small town that evolved from a commercial port into a charming village.

Look for the flashing red light on the New Pierhead Light — an unusual, art deco-style lighthouse — and a small green flashing light on the south breakwater. Enter the channel between these two lights to dock at the Port Washington Marina. You will find enough restaurants and things to do in the area that you’ll want to stay a while.

You don’t need to walk any further than across the street to find downtown Port Washington. “Step off the boat and you are at the Dockside Deli,” says Harbormaster Dennis Cherny. “Walk a few steps and you are at several pubs and restaurants.”
Lake power

With a downtown that abuts Port Washington Marina, “lake effect” here is more than just a weather phrase. “Port Washington is a boaters’ destination,” says Tourism Council Executive Director Kathy Tank.

Port Washington, founded in 1835 as Wisconsin City, grew in importance in commercial shipping of grains from surrounding farms, hides from the local tannery, cordwood, bricks and other items sent through the Great Lakes. The town has the oldest man-made harbor on the Great Lakes, dating back to 1879, according to local historian Richard “Rick” D. Smith, author of “Port Washington” and codirector of the Port Washington Historical Society.

“A lot of schooners would tie up at piers that just stuck out into the lake,” Smith says. Two boats went down during the same storm in 1856 because of pier problems. “One lost everyone on-board,” Smith says. “The locals were able to get everyone off of the other in time.”

If you’re interested in shipwrecks, stop in at the Port Exploreum on Franklin Street. This museum has a spectacular interactive Lake Michigan Table where visitors can tap on spaces to learn the whereabouts of 50 shipwrecks between Milwaukee and Two Rivers, Wisconsin.

“It shows the ships underwater, including the Christmas ship,” says Wayne F. Chrusciel, executive director of the Port Washington Historical Society. The Society oversees the Port Exploreum, and the 1860 Lighthouse and Light Station Museum, which is on the north bluff above downtown.

By tapping on other table spots, museum visitors can see information on ships currently passing the town, points of interest, lake depth and what is happening regarding lake erosion. There is also a live weather feed from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

“This is a Lake Michigan learning lab,” Chrusciel says. “We want to get the next generation interested in the lake.”

His next project is getting a National Marine Sanctuary offshore. “We’re proposing one for Port Washington. It means divers can dive down and look [at shipwrecks] but not take anything from the boats.”

The Port Exploreum features artifacts from shipwrecks near Port Washington in permanent collections and in rotating exhibits, including the new SS Atlanta exhibit. Upstairs are pictures and artifacts from the town’s 135-year commercial fishing era. The stairs are labeled with Port Washington fishing families that go back four and five generations.

“Originally it was like a shanty town,” Chrusciel says. “There’s no commercial fishing now; it ended around 1998 when invasive species came in.”

Fish and slips

In an upstairs marina office with a great view of the harbor, Harbormaster Cherny notes that even though invasive species have decimated commercial fishing, the lake has been good for charter boats, particularly in 2016.

“The fishing here is phenomenal. Charter boats are back in two to three hours with their maximum catch (30 fish),” Cherny says. What they catch are Coho and Chinook salmon, and rainbow, lake or brown trout. In addition to the charters’ fish-prep facilities the harbor has a fish cleaning station.

Cherny is particularly proud of how clean his marina is. Built by the city in 1982, the marina was revamped in 2010.

“We were Wisconsin’s first certified Clean Marina in 2010, shortly after the Clean Marina Certification rules were adopted,” Cherny says. He added that the certification was recently renewed. “Part of that is attributable to the floating docks we instituted and the pumpout systems added to each dock, which are easier for boaters to use.”

Port Washington Marina offers 220 deep-water slips and 30 transient slips, as well as short tie-ups for boaters who want to shop and dine downtown. Open from April 1 to November 1, Cherny recommends reservations.

Not everyone comes by water, however; Port Washington is also a popular destination for people who trailer their boats. “We get boaters from across the lake, Chicago and Milwaukee, and people doing the Loop who stop to refuel, rest and see Port Washington,” Cherny says. “We also get trailer boaters from Iowa, Minnesota and Kansas.”

Reservations are highly recommended for July and August, according to Assistant Harbormaster Lisa Rathke. But you may already be too late to book a slip during Port Washington’s Fish Day during the third weekend of July, when nearly 30,000 people descend on the town’s lakeshore.

“It’s the world’s largest all-day fish fry,” Rathke says. “We’re usually booked up that weekend by January. The marina closes because the event starts here and covers the entire lakefront, so people have to be in on Friday and usually leave Sunday.”

Another popular time to dock at the marina is during the Pirate Festival the first weekend in June. This family-friendly event launches Port Washington’s summer season.

Shop and sip

Dock or park, and you’re ready for ice cream, a pub and exploring. Just know that when the friendly locals tell you the store, bakery or restaurant is on “Main Street,” they really mean Franklin Street. Main is a cross street.

If you like to travel by your stomach, you can orient yourself to Port Washington’s tiny four-block downtown by starting at the Dockside Deli for a Cedar Crest ice cream cone. You can spot the deli on East Main Street from the marina’s office. Or walk over to Newport Shores at the north end of the marina on Jackson Street. Chosen as one of America’s Best Seafood Dives by Coastal Living magazine, Newport Shores offers fresh seafood dishes and a daily fish fry with Lake Michigan views.

If you’re already on Franklin Street, relax at Schooner Pub & Grill, or at St. James Pub, known for its large selection of beer and whiskey.

Downtown on Main Street, you’ll find Vines to Cellar. This micro-winery produces a full selection of wines, and offers a complete wine tasting bar to sample their wines. You can also make your own wine with their winemaker!

If you’re driving in on U.S. Interstate 43, you will likely follow Wisconsin Highway 32 (Grand Avenue) into town. Park where it hits Franklin Street and check out the Smith Bros. Coffee Shop. You know how people say “You can’t miss it”? Well, if you look up atop the building at the northeast corner of Grand and Franklin you will see a neon sign of a fisherman and the words, “Smith Bros. Fish Shanty.” Folks used to drive or boat to Port Washington just to eat at Smith Bros. The renowned restaurant is now gone, but the coffee shop in its corner spot is excellent.

After a latte or an authentic Smith Bros. fish sandwich, cut through a side entrance into its neighbor, Duluth Trading Co. Famous for its rugged, long-lasting work clothes and accessories, Duluth Trading has a major store in the rest of the building, a landmark since 1954.

The Port Exploreum lies just north of Duluth Trading. When you’re ready for a chocolate break, walk west up Grand Avenue to Chocolate Chisel’s tiny store. The shop also has ice cream and fountain drinks.

Cross Grand on the way back down to see the Port Washington Visitor Center’s located in the Pebble House, originally the mid-1800s home of blacksmith Edward Dodge and his wife, Elizabeth. They gathered smooth stones from Sauk Creek and used them for the exterior of their home. Stop in at the Visitor’s Center to say hello to Kathy Tank.

“The question I get from boaters is ‘where can I get ice cream?’ ” she says. Tank is also asked about dress code when she mentions the different restaurants in town. “We’re a boating community in the summer so everything is casual.”

Back down at Franklin Street, stop in at Bernie’s Fine Meats. This is a good place to provision with really good European-style bacon and sausage; plus, it has a great cheese selection.

Go next door to Shoppes of Port, a fun local co-op with everything from antiques and sports memorabilia to jewelry, gifts and home decor.

And that was just one block. Look for more jewelry and gifts in the next couple of blocks, but don’t pass up the Daily Baking Company for bread and pastries to take back to the boat. Tip: Get there early. The bakery produces small batches, so it may be out of items by closing time at 4 p.m. Although the name is Daily Baking, the bakery is only open Thursday through Sunday.

Finish the day at Twisted Willow, a cutting-edge, farm-to-table restaurant, or one of two popular, family-owned restaurants: Newport Shores or Pasta Shoppe. For fine dining, check out the elegant Port Hotel Restaurant on Main.

When all you want to do is to kick back on your boat, think take-out. Some good order-out, eat-in spots are Yummy Bones BBQ and China King, both on Main Street, as well as John’s Pizzeria on Franklin.
Bikes, hikes and lights

Old is a relative term when talking about Port Washington’s harbor lights. The town’s Historic District, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, has buildings pre-dating the Civil War. Even though the art deco lighthouse at the end of North Pier is called the New Pierhead Light (aka the Port Washington Breakwater Light), it was constructed more than 80 years ago, in 1935. Its predecessor, the Old Pierhead Light, was built in 1889.

But the place to visit is the 1860 Light Station, a complex that integrates parts of the original 1849 keeper’s dwelling with the rebuilt lighthouse. It has a totally rebuilt tower, plus a renovated generator and storage buildings. It sits high on a bluff on Johnson Street, around the corner from the St. Mary’s Church and School campus. St. Mary’s is that impressive church you see up the hill at the north end of the downtown.

Operated by Port Washington Historical Society volunteers, the Light Station is open Friday through Sunday from Memorial Day Weekend through mid-October; it can also be toured by appointment. The Light Station is a wonderful glimpse of the life and times of lighthouse keepers and their families. There is furniture from the period along with pictures of keepers and their families, including former whaling captain, Charles Lewis, and his son, Charles Jr.

The rebuilt tower and lantern room were built by Luxembourg craftsmen who donated them to the Society as a thank you to U.S. servicemen for Luxembourg’s liberation in WWII. Farmers and other immigrants from Luxembourg, Germany and Belgium had settled in Ozaukee County over several decades before the war.

A narrow stairway, then a ladder, leads up to the lantern room where there is a fourth-order Fresnel lens made by Artworks Florida, offering terrific views.
“The light is a plastic replica,” says Rick Smith. “We could have had it but regulations required it be in the museum and not up at the top.”

He explained that the keepers’ house had other uses, including a duplex, but was restored from 2000-2002. “We turned it back into the original building. It’s similar to the one in Grand Traverse, Michigan,” Smith says.

The Light Station is a short hike or bike trip from the marina. Stop in at Zu Zu Pedals on Franklin Street to rent bikes. While you’re there, ask about the Ozaukee Interurban Trail. This 30-mile paved bike trail follows the electric railway route between Milwaukee to Sheboygan that once went through Port Washington and the surrounding communities of Cedarburg, Grafton and Belgium from the early 1900s to 1951. Part of the trail runs below the Light Station, and past the delightful green stretch that makes up Veterans Park, Upper Lake Park and Whitefish Park.

The Interurban Trail makes it easy to get to some of the scenic and fun destinations near Port Washington. Go to Saukville, just west of Port Washington, to walk around the Ozaukee County Pioneer Village’s two-dozen historic buildings; or hike Riveredge Nature Center, a 370-acre property of woodlands, prairies and ponds along the Milwaukee River.

If you’re a birder looking for scenic landscapes, go south of Port Washington to the Lion’s Den Gorge Nature Preserve in Grafton. Part of the Great Wisconsin Birding Trail, it has bridges and stairways along undeveloped bluffs along Lake Michigan.

For some shopping, go southeast of Grafton to the historic town of Cedarburg, a popular Wisconsin destination featuring a cluster of buildings known as the Cedar Creek Settlement, which date back to the mid-1800s. There is a restored woolen mill, artist’s galleries, cute shops, a winery and good restaurants. The Wisconsin Museum of Quilts and Fiber Arts is also in Cedarburg, east of the downtown.

If you’re interested in the Luxembourg connection to the area, go north of Port Washington to Belgium. There, the Luxembourg American Cultural Center has a Roots and Leaves Museum in the former Mamer-Hansen Luxembourgian stone barn built in 1872.

Back in Port Washington, stroll down Franklin to see some of its mid-19th century buildings. The entire block that includes the Pasta Shoppe is on the National Register. So is the Historical Society building dating back to 1854. Then, heading south on Franklin, you’ll find buildings from the 1880s, says Chrusciel.

Sitting on a bench in the Port Exploreum, Chrusciel looks up at an old photo on the wall of Franklin Street. “It hasn’t changed all that much.”

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