Queen of the Great Lakes

Michigan’s oldest passenger steamship lives in Muskegon.
Milwaukee Clipper
Photography courtesy Steven Demos

Michigan’s oldest steam-powered passenger ship has since returned to her home port. She no longer crosses Lake Michigan but does again welcome guests. Permanently berthed along the Muskegon Lake shore, she is open to the public for tours. The S.S. Milwaukee Clipper was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982 and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1989.

Milwaukee Clipper photoshoot
In April 1991, the Hammond Historic Preservation Commission held a photo shoot on the Milwaukee Clipper with 500 people aboard. One of the images was to be selected for a poster that would go on sale to raise additional funds. Photography courtesy Vintage Views

Eleven hundred visitors climbed aboard the ship during its 2016 season. Its decks are open every weekend from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day. More information about tours is found at milwaukeeclipper.com.

The Milwaukee Clipper was built in 1904 in Detroit as the Juniata, a 361-foot wooden steamer. Built to carry freight and provide first class accommodations for 350 passengers, she sailed between Buffalo, New York, and Duluth, Minnesota. Steamship travel was en vogue at the time, and the Juniata was top of the line. But by 1937, safety regulations brought about her demise, and the wooden Juniata was retired.

I can still feel the sting of the sandy sidewalk on my feet, as my cousin and I ran down Beach Street trying to beat the Milwaukee Clipper to the Muskegon channel. Killing time on a hot summer day, we’d spy her leaving port on Muskegon Lake or coming in off Lake Michigan. Winded and holding our sides, seeing the elegant ship was our reward. We waved at her carefree passengers as they set off on their journey …

Enter Max and Mark McKee, two local entrepreneurs who envisioned creating a cross-lake ferry out of Muskegon. They purchased Juniata and contracted with renowned architect George Sharp to replace its wood structure with steel and design it for entertainment and carrying more passengers. She was the safest prototype of her time, and on June 2, 1941, the S.S. Milwaukee Clipper was christened.

Milwaukee Clipper cafeteria
Happy travelers line up at the cafeteria for a meal. Photography courtesy Steven Demos

Its 900 passengers dined and danced in Art Deco-styled rooms. They relaxed on innovative aluminum and fabric furniture by legendary designer Warren McArthur. The ship’s Marine Lounge had a wooden dance floor that was anchored by an imposing mahogany bar trimmed in brown leather and stainless steel. Tired guests could rest in one of 36 staterooms. Pullman berths accommodating 56 sleeping passengers also could be converted to daytime seating and tables for 112. A floating showcase of the designs of the day, the Milwaukee Clipper met every need.

Retired Captain Robert Priefer, who was master of the vessel from 1960-67, recalls his introduction to the ship with wit and clarity. He continues to live in Muskegon’s Lakeside neighborhood just minutes from the ship he served for 28 seasons. Priefer’s father, who made his living servicing ships, was aware of the McKee venture and had suggested to his son that he consider applying for the liner’s dishwasher position after high school graduation.

The iconic vessel plied Lake Michigan waters until 1970 when needed repairs and increasing regulation made operating her too expensive.

“When your feet are under his table, you’d better do what he says,” muses Priefer, who now is 95 years old.

Today, Priefer is an active supporter and volunteer who helps with the ship’s restoration. He speaks proudly of presiding over his granddaughter’s wedding on the Milwaukee Clipper last year.

“As the captain of the ship, I get to do that,” Priefer said.

Juniata crew, staterooms
Left: The captain and crew of the Juniata gather outside the ship’s pilot house. The Milwaukee Clipper was built in 1904 in Detroit as the Juniata, a 361-foot wooden steamer. Steamship travel was en vogue at the time, and the Juniata was top of the line. Right: Staterooms were available for families and others who wanted privacy or to rest. Photography courtesy Steven Demos

The iconic vessel plied Lake Michigan waters until 1970 when needed repairs and increasing regulation made operating her too expensive. On July 12, 1977, Muskegon residents once again lined the channel wall to watch the “Queen of the Great Lakes” make her final passage. Not under her own power but with skipper Priefer on her bridge, the tugboat American Viking brought the ship out of the breakwater.

Most of the well-wishers soon lost track of the Milwaukee Clipper. Her new owner, Chicago businessman James W. Gillon, aimed to see her cruise the Great Lakes once more. The ship was taken to Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, for repair. “Milwaukee” was dropped from its name, and Gillon moved forward with plans for employing the S.S. Clipper in three-hour excursions out of Chicago.

Shuffleboard game on deck
Passengers go on deck for fresh air or a rousing game of shuffleboard. Photography courtesy Steven Demos

But things didn’t go as Mr. Gillon hoped, and in 1990, the ship went up for bid at a federal auction in Chicago. The Hammond Port Authority, in Hammond, Indiana, purchased it for $335,000. The Milwaukee Clipper name was restored, and the boat was used as the city marina clubhouse.

Yet, the Clipper’s journey hardly was over. Empress Casinos of Joliet, Illinois, approached the Hammond Port Authority in 1996 seeking to use their dock for a different boat that would serve as a casino. The authority agreed, and the Milwaukee Clipper was moved to the Calumet River where it languished by the coal docks, up for sale.

A floating showcase of the designs of the day, the Milwaukee Clipper met every need.

During its years of relocation, re-purpose and ownership, a group of Muskegon citizens with an interest in the ship began organizing an effort to bring the Milwaukee Clipper home. Local businessman Jim Plant, filmmaker Mark Howell, Captain Priefer and Peggy White, a local business owner and media celebrity, formed The Friends of the Clipper, and later, in 1997, the nonprofit Great Lakes Clipper Preservation Association. They traveled to the Indiana South Shore to persuade the ship’s owners they had a plan and would care for the historic vessel.

“We had to convince them that we would be good stewards,” Plant recalls.

Captain Bob Priefer
Captain Bob Priefer visits the Milwaukee Clipper wheelhouse again. Photography courtesy Steven Demos

Despite the threat of sale to other parties, including scrap dealers and a convoluted odyssey of meetings, inspections and fund raising, the group achieved their goal. Empress Casinos agreed to reimburse the port authority for the auction price it paid and cover the cost of bringing the ship back to Muskegon. The agreement also required a cash outlay from the preservation group.

“Great Lakes Clipper Preservation Inc. bought the ship from the Hammond Port Authority for $1, which I handed them from my pocket,” Plant said.

And at 3:15 p.m. December 2, 1997, the Milwaukee Clipper once again entered the Muskegon channel. Ferried out to the Clipper as it approached the breakwater, 75-year-old Robert Priefer climbed aboard via a hanging ladder and was again at the helm of the boat he had first boarded as a teenager. It was a foggy day, something Priefer found remarkable.

Left: The cafeteria served full meals to happy travelers. Right: The Marine Cocktail Lounge was a lively place during passages. Photography courtesy Steven Demos

“I’d never seen fog in December on Lake Michigan,” he said. As the ship cautiously maneuvered past the Muskegon foghorn in the care of the tug John Purves, an ancient affirmation appeared. “The fog parted and there was a rainbow,” Priefer recalls with a lift in his voice.

The Clipper today is a Muskegon tourism headliner. Restoring her required more than 60,000 volunteer hours by supporters. Now titled The S.S. Milwaukee Clipper Preservation, Inc., the group’s annual auction and brunch at the Muskegon Country Club is a key fundraiser for the ship. Funding also is generated by sale of the book “The S.S. Milwaukee Clipper: An Illustrated History,” which can be ordered on its website.

Patrice Frantz is a self-proclaimed “lake girl” and author who lives in Grand Haven.

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