Historical Information

Milwaukee, Chicago, Green Bay, Muskegon, Port Washington, Manitowoc and many other cities that stand along the shores of the Great Lakes were built by the ships that sailed those same Lakes. Without the sailing vessels of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries these communities would not exist as they do today. Long distance transportation for cargo and passengers before the middle of the nineteenth century was by sailing ships on the lakes as overland transportation was too slow, arduous, and expensive for large-scale commerce. Schooners made up the bulk of the sailing fleet and were responsible for the rise of two of the region’s earliest and greatest industries; the grain trade and the lumber trade.

These first vessels on the lakes were the same type used on the oceans. Square rigged vessels, brigs, and barks were most frequently the first vessels built on the lakes. But the winds of the Great Lakes were nothing like the oceans’ trade winds. These winds were constantly changing direction being affected by the land, which was always nearby. As time went on fewer and fewer square-rigged ships were built on the lakes and more and more schooners were being launched. The schooner was easier and cheaper to build and easier and more efficient to sail needing a smaller crew thereby reducing operating costs. Between 1837 and 1889, 123 schooners were built in Milwaukee, the last one being the schooner Peshtigo in 1889. These vessels were the workhorses of the Great Lakes moving goods and people from port to port from the 1830s and 1890s and even in some cases into the 1920s.

In 1989, when Milwaukee’s port director started receiving inquiries from a number of individuals interested in constructing a sailing vessel in Milwaukee, he encouraged them to join and formalize their efforts. While several vessel types were looked at, the idea of building a traditional Great Lakes schooner, used as a school vessel, based at Milwaukee’s municipal pier, started to take shape.

On a warm June evening in 2000, the S/V Denis Sullivan was lowered by a crane in Milwaukee’s inner harbor, into the water for the first time. After almost five years and more than 900,000 recorded volunteer hours, the dream had become a reality. From the official keel laying ceremony in late October 1995, until she sailed on her maiden voyage in November 2000, hundreds of volunteers worked under the supervision of a few professional shipwrights to create the 124th Milwaukee-built schooner.

The building of this schooner allowed us to mix old and new technologies in ship construction. One of the newer technologies was in the shaping of the frames. Normally, full size white oak trees or the joining of large pieces would be used to make the frames. We used a lamination system where one-inch thick white oak boards were glued together in the shape of the frames. Later on, other large structures on the ship were similarly made.

One of the older technologies showed up in the planking of the hull. The white oak planks were attached to the frames above the waterline and in strategic places below the water line by galvanized nails. Below the waterline wooden dowels or “trunnels” were used – a method in use for several hundred years. The planks were also caulked in the traditional manner. White cotton was hammered between the planks, followed by a frayed hemp material called oakum and then “payed” with hot tar to seal it.

The vessel’s main purpose is to be used as a floating classroom, taking students (children and adults alike) on programs of discovery. Participants are involved in hands-on, interdisciplinary learning of sailing techniques, weather forecasting, history and environmental issues (i.e. water testing, sediment sampling, plankton exploration, invasive species). The Sullivan is a focal point for increased awareness of the Great Lakes ecosystem and environmental concerns, and a catalyst for cultural awareness through preservation of our rich maritime heritage.

In the summers, the S/V Denis Sullivan offers a variety of programming. She does Public Sails and Deck Tours for the general public in Milwaukee, and also travels to various ports to participate in celebrations and events giving both Deck Tours and Day Sails. She is involved with a variety of educational opportunities. We have a ninety-minute dockside discovery for first through third graders, two or three-hour Lake Watch Expeditions for fourth through college age and teachers, five to ten day voyages throughout the lakes with fourteen to thirty year olds, and five to seven day adult adventure sails on the Great Lakes.

Over the 16+ years that the S/V Denis Sullivan has been in operation, she has visited all five Great Lakes a number of time and has made seven voyages south to Florida and the Bahamas. In this upcoming season, we will be sailing in four of the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River as far north as Quebec City as we help our neighbors celebrate 150 years of their Confederation.