The SS Milwaukee Clipper was once the premiere way to cruise Lake Michigan.
The SS Milwaukee Clipper began its life in 1904 as a the Juniata, a passenger and cargo-carrying ferry that ran between Buffalo and Duluth. After a three-year layup during the Great Depression, it was rebuilt and modernized at the Manitowoc Shipbuilding Yards and, in 1941, debuted as the Milwaukee Clipper luxury ferry, mostly running between Milwaukee and Muskegon, Michigan. The Clipper featured a movie theater, a dance hall, and the well-stocked Club Lounge bar.
With room for 900 passengers (in air-conditioned staterooms) and 120 automobiles, the Clipper was a Midwestern destination for nearly three decades. The Clipper carried thousands of tourists and their cars across the lake, promoting the line as one that could turn 240 miles of driving into a leisurely six-hour cruise replete with fine food, music, dancing and evening stargazing. The Clipper became so popular that it ran year-round between 1946 and 1964, running between Milwaukee and Chicago in the colder seasons. After 1964, she was limited to summer travel only and by 1970, she was down to operating just three days a week. In September of that year, the Clipper left Milwaukee for the last time, driven into retirement by high operating costs and a litany of expensive repairs that were needed.
Since the early 1980s, the Clipper has existed as a floating museum, docking in Chicago and Hammond, Indiana before finding a permanent home in Muskegon. The restored ship still resides there today, docked at the old Grand Trunk Railroad terminal. The Lake Express, a catamaran-style ferry launched in 2004, runs the same route as the Clipper once did, with greater speed but far less luxury.
These pages are from a scrapbook of a family who visited Milwaukee via the Clipper in 1950. The attention to detail aboard the ship is evident, with the Clipper-branded drink coasters, straws, napkins, spoons, and even toothpicks. The receipt for the family’s tickets indicates that four persons and a car could travel cross-lake for just under $23.00 (about $240 in today’s money). At the Club Lounge, drink prices ranged from a “premium beer” for 30 cents ($3.15 today) to a “bourbon bonded” for 85 cents (Nearly $9 today).
Antique Milwaukee is a new web Milwaukee Magazine web series that takes a closer look at objects and curiosities from around town that have a story to tell. We’ll reveal a piece of Milwaukee’s history through a new artifact in each installment.