The Storied History of Milwaukee’s Harbor Seagull Tugboat

Port Milwaukee’s harbor master has a soft spot in his heart for the workmanlike tugboat that foundered this winter.

The Harbor Seagull isn’t the prettiest vessel, but to Milwaukee Harbor Master Wayne Johnson, the squat, beat-up tugboat is a thing of beauty.

After 16 years at Port Milwaukee, Johnson doesn’t hide his sentimental attachment for the fussy vessel with the 50-foot black hull, white and red house and 22-foot blue boom. That’s why the news that Johnson received in a pre-dawn call in February hit like a ton of bricks. The beloved Harbor Seagull had sunk.

“I couldn’t believe it. And then when I saw it, it was even worse. I’ve sailed on the Harbor Seagull quite a bit,” Johnson says. “It was quite emotional, that’s for sure. It still is.”

The Harbor Seagull has been an “absolute workhorse and star” during its decades of service, Port Milwaukee Director Adam Tindall-Schlicht says. Although an investigation into the Harbor Seagull’s sinking is ongoing, Tindall-Schlicht believes it’s undoubtedly tied to the wear and tear of its 60 years of active use. “She’s an old vessel that’s been doing a lot of work for many years,” he says.

The older of the port’s two workboats handles an array of not-so-glamorous duties in and around the port: icebreaking, serving as a dive platform for police, clearing river-jamming debris in spring. The Harbor Seagull also has firefighting capabilities and in bygone days worked to collect thousands of dead alewives.



It’s seen some grim duty, too, pulling the bodies of drowning victims from local waterways. Johnson served on the Harbor Seagull crew that worked for nine days to recover the remains of six people who died in June 2007, when a Cessna carrying an organ transplant team crashed into Lake Michigan shortly after takeoff.

The durable Harbor Seagull, powered by a six-cylinder, 250-horsepower engine, is unique in its abilities, Johnson says. “It’s been a very useful boat. You probably won’t find another one like it around the United States. You sail it under the Hoan Bridge and think, ‘Wow, I’m getting paid for this.’”

Replacing the tugboat would be much more costly than performing the needed repairs, which are likely to involve the rebuilding of the engine, marine gear and generators, he adds. “It would cost over $1 million to build a new vessel of that sort,” Johnson says.

He’s convinced the old, reliable craft will be back at work before long – and hopefully before he retires as harbor master in June. “I gave Adam a timeline that I want to see it floating again by Memorial Day,” Johnson says. “I’m confident that we can hit that.”


This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s May issue.

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Rich Rovito is a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine.