Essay: Spending the Summer on a Lake Michigan Barge

Essay: Spending the Summer on a Lake Michigan Barge

Tom Tolan shares a Milwaukee story about working on a ship on the Great Lakes.

I was a year out of college, living with my parents on the East Side and having not a scrap of a career plan. I had worked as a longshoreman in Milwaukee, but there weren’t many ships coming in during the summer of 1973.

In August, I went down to the state unemployment office with my college friend John seeking an actual job. We found a request for two crewmen to help sail a converted military-surplus landing craft from Detroit to Milwaukee. We bused to Motown and met our employer, who planned to use the vessel in his Milwaukee dredging business.

The trip back, through Lakes Huron and Michigan, took about a week. We kept close to shore and docked at night, sleeping in a camper trailer parked on deck. We took turns steering, always aiming the lumbering craft at the next promontory. Our boss kept saying, “It’s a slow boat to China,” a reference to a song with the admirable line, “Out on the briny with a moon big and shiny.”

When we got to Milwaukee, John had had enough of the briny, but I wanted more. I found a gig crewing for a Sturgeon Bay tugboat company, Selvick Marine Towing. The Selvicks towed barges loaded with dry cement from a mill in Petoskey, Mich., down to Milwaukee, Chicago and Holland, Mich. I spent most of two months on a barge, taking shifts at the helm, aiming the bow at the stern of the tugboat that towed us.

It was a hot September onshore, but in the middle of Lake Michigan, it was around 60 degrees. I loved being out there in the cool air, with no land visible in any direction. I also loved it when we approached Chicago and the tops of the buildings rose gradually over the horizon. In Milwaukee, I loved winding our way up the Menomonee Valley – and when we were docked, watching cars get flattened in the scrapyard across the Burnham Canal.

We kept hauling into October. One day, a gale came up on a trip from Petoskey. I was at the barge’s wheel, and the waves got bigger, breaking over the sides. The radio reported a waterspout in Grand Traverse Bay, the mouth of which we were crossing. I was petrified. But the tug pulled us into the sheltered bay of an island.

We rode out the storm. The next morning was calm and sunny, and girls from a campground were paddling around in canoes. I can’t remember a moment since then that I felt such a combination of relief, happiness and peace. That’s partly because my family soon came into real sadness – but that’s a story for another season.

“Barging Along” is party of the essay collection, “True Stories,” which appears in the 2016 City Guide issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find the May issue on newsstands beginning May 30, or buy a copy at

Be the first to get every new issue. Subscribe.



Tom Tolan is managing editor at Milwaukee Magazine, where he's worked since January 2016. He spent 24 years at The Milwaukee Journal and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel as a copy editor, assistant metro editor and reporter. He lives in Shorewood.