Saturday, May 28, 2016

Wondrous Places: The Bay of Green Bay

Map of Green Bay

Dear George,
Menominee and Marinette are located on the Green Bay shore at the mouth of the Menominee River.  The bay is a huge presence and resource for residents and visitors.  We spent hundreds of hours on Green Bay in our youth — swimming at the O’Hara’s; doing fireworks at the Caleys; going to the Sawyer hunting camp; visiting with the Mars, Steffkes, and Jacobsens.  As teenagers we hung out on sunny days at Marina Park, picnicked at Henes Park, and swam at Hinker’s coal dock.  We’re pretty landlocked here in Cincinnati by comparison, and I’m always struck by the natural beauty of the bay and its environment when we return home for a visit.  Here are some facts about this remarkable body of water.   

Bay view, Henes Park, Menominee

Green Bay is a huge inlet extending off of northwestern Lake Michigan.   It’s 120 miles long and averages about 14 miles wide.  The bay’s northern end is at Big Bay de Noc near Escanaba, and its southern tip is at the mouth of the Fox River at Green Bay, Wisconsin.  The bay’s shoreline stretches along two counties in the U.P. (Delta, Menominee) and  five counties in northeastern Wisconsin (Marinette, Oconto, Brown, Kewaunee, and Door).  Green Bay is separated from the rest of Lake Michigan by the U.P.’s Garden Peninsula to the north, Wisconsin’s Door Peninsula to the south, and the chain of islands between the two (Rock, Washington, St. Martin’s, and Summer Islands).   With 1,626 square miles of area, Green Bay is Lake Michigan’s largest bay, and it’s the largest fresh-water estuary in the world.  Its average depth is 65 feet, and its maximum depth, located 4 miles west of Washington Island, is 176 feet.  Green Bay is fed by eleven rivers and streams, the most important of which are the Fox/Wolf, Peshtigo, Oconto, Menominee, and Escanaba Rivers.  One third of all the land that drains into Lake Michigan passes through Green Bay first.  (2, 6, 21)

Green Bay was first explored by Europeans in the early 1600’s.  Quebec governor Samuel de Champlain had heard rumors of a strange race who called themselves “People of the Sea,” and he believed that the area offered a short route to the Pacific Ocean and China.  Champlain selected Jean Nicolet to explore the area, and Nicolet set off by canoe from Quebec in July 1634 with a crew of 7 Hurons.  On arriving and first meeting Native Americans on the Green Bay shore, Nicolet put on a damask robe embroidered with birds and flowers, intending to be suitably dressed for the mandarins of the East.  Despite the disappointment of not finding the Orient, the land’s rich resources led Nicolet to claim the area for the King of France.  Nicolet named the bay “La Bay des Punts” (“the Bay of the Stinkards”).  The French had gotten this name from their Indian guides who referred to the natives who lived near Green Bay by a word meaning “Stinkers”, perhaps because of the smell of marshes near the bay.  The French also called the bay “Baie Verte” (Green Bay), and the English adopted this name.  (9, 19, 21)  

The first European settlements along the Green Bay coastline were located near the mouth of the Fox River in the vicinity of the current city of Green Bay.  Pere Claude Allouez established the St. Francis Xavier mission in 1671 near what’s now the city of De Pere, and Charles de Langlade, a half-French Ottawa chief, and his father built a trading post on the Fox River at Green Bay in 1764.  After the Revolutionary War the Americans built Fort Howard on the same site.  Founded nearby in 1834 the city of Green Bay is the oldest city in the state of Wisconsin.  Fifty miles to the north along the Green Bay coast, fur trader Louis Chappee was Menominee’s first European settler, establishing a trading post on the Menominee River in 1796.  Fur trader Louis A. Roberts and his family were the first settlers along the bay at Escanaba in 1830.  (7, 8, 9)

Freighter, Marinette harbor

Shipping on Green Bay, critical to the growth of lumber, iron ore, and shipbuilding industries, has been important since the mid-1800s.  The city of Green Bay has the bay’s largest port, with 14 businesses spread along three miles of the Fox River.  The Port of Green Bay recorded 158 foreign and domestic ship arrivals between April and December 2015, carrying approximately 2 million tons of cargo.  (17)  The first known steamboat to arrive in Menominee was the “New York” in 1836.  Daily boats began running between Menominee and the city of Green Bay in 1858, and the Green Bay and Menominee River Navigation Co. was formed in 1867.  In 1873 three twin city lumber companies bought the steam-powered Bismarck and six barges, capable of transporting 3 million feet of lumber.  From that point on nearly all lumber from Menominee and Marinette mills was transported by steamboat to Chicago via Green Bay and Lake Michigan.  Today Menominee’s harbor, located at the mouth of the Menominee River, has 3,300 feet of pier structures and two miles of maintained channels.  The harbor gets 325,000 tons of domestic and international traffic a year.  Major commodities include pig iron, pulp and paper, and coal.  (1, 11)

Menekaunee Bridge, Marinette

Green Bay and Lake Michigan shipping, especially in the early days, was a dangerous enterprise.  According to the website, there have been 275 recorded vessel losses in the Green Bay/Door County region (which includes Green Bay as well as the Lake Michigan coast of Door County).  The strait which links Lake Michigan and Green Bay at the northern tip of Door County is known as Porte des Mortes, or the Door of Death. In fact, that’s where Door County gets its name.  Some maritime historians conclude that the strait has had more shipwrecks than any other section of fresh water in the world.  The strait is narrow, shoals extend far from the shore, Great Lakes winds are unpredictable, small islands constitute hazards, and older sailing vessels weren’t as navigable as modern motor boats. Famous shipwrecks at Death’s Door include the Fleeting in 1888 and the A.P. Nichols, the Forest, and the J.E. Gilmore in 1892.  (12, 24)

Marina, Menominee

Green Bay, of course, is highly popular for recreational boaters, and ports on Green Bay receive regular visitors from Chicago, Milwaukee, and many other Lake Michigan locations.  The main U.P. harbors on Green Bay include Menominee, Escanaba, and Gladstone.  The Menominee marina has 261 slips and 20 inner wall-side tie-ups.  Wisconsin harbor towns on Green Bay include Marinette, Oconto, Green Bay, Sturgeon Bay, and various Door County marinas (Bailey’s Harbor, Sturgeon Bay, Egg Harbor, Fish Creek, Ephraim, Sister Bay, and Washington Island).  Several of our family friends owned powerboats or sailboats — e.g., the O’Hara’s, Caleys, Hoods — and we’d go with them from time to time to Door County or even as far as Mackinac Island. 

Fishing boats, Menekaunee (Marinette)  

Green Bay is also a major location for fishing, prized for its walleye, perch, and northern pike. According to the Wisconsin DNR, fish in Green Bay south of Marinette and its tributaries (the Menominee, Oconto, and Peshtigo Rivers) include: Walleye, Northern pike, Rainbow trout, Lake whitefish, Sheepshead, Smallmouth bass, Chinook salmon, Brown trout, Muskellunge, Carp, Sturgeon, White bass, Channel catfish, White perch, Yellow perch, White sucker, and Burbot. (4)  In Menominee there is fishing at the downtown marina, at the mouth of the Menominee River, and at Stephenson Island in Marinette.  Walleye, brown trout, and steelhead are prolific in the spring, and lake whitefish and Chinook salmon run in the fall.  The Hattie Street bridge is a popular place for lake sturgeon fishing.  Several of my grade school friends regularly fished for perch at the breakwater in downtown Menominee.  I joined them once in a while, but I wasn’t very adept.  (14) 

Beach, Henes Park, Menominee

Green Bay, of course, is home to innumerable parks and beaches.  According to, 3 of Wisconsin’s 12 best beaches are located on Green Bay in Door County: Peninsula State Park at Fish Creek; Portage Town Park at Sturgeon Bay; and Whitefish Dunes State Park at Sturgeon Bay. (26)  Menominee and Menominee County Parks on Green Bay include: Menominee’s Great Lakes Memorial Marina Park (1,100 ft. of waterfront), Veteran’s Memorial Park, John Henes Park (2,600 ft. water frontage),  Lighthouse Ann Arbor Park, the Menominee Tourist Park, Airport Park (with a boat landing), Bailey Park (4,800 feet of sand beach), Fox Park (6,000 ft. of frontage), Kleinke Park (24 acres), and J.W. Wells State Park (974 acres).  We’ve spent many happy hours at these places, especially Marina Park, Henes Park, and Airport Park near Birch Creek.  Compared to the river, the bay pretty chilly, as is Lake Michigan in general.  Monthly average water surface temperatures measured at the city of Green Bay are: June, 47.6 degrees; July, 59.5; August, 67.4; and September, 63.6.  However, the shallow coastline areas where most swimming takes place are several degrees warmer than these figures.  In addition to the many beaches, the Hiawatha National Forest and the Menominee State Forest lie along Green Bay’s northern shore in Menominee and Delta Counties.  (brit) (13, 18)

Door County, across the bay from Menominee, is one of Wisconsin’s most popular tourist regions, and Katja and I have done a couple of mini-trips there in recent years.   Door County’s summer population is ten times its year-round population.  Bordering the southeastern stretch of  Green Bay and Lake Michigan to its east, it's Wisconsin’s only peninsula.  Door County has 300 miles of shoreline.  It’s well known for its cherry and apple orchards.  The peninsula’s main highways pass through small resort towns that offer dining, shopping, wineries, and lodging for tourists.  Door County has five state parks, more than any other county in the nation.  With the completion of the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal in 1882, the northern half of the peninsula became an island.  Sturgeon Bay is known as the Great Lakes shipbuilding capital. (3, 5, 7, 15, 22)  

North Pier Light, Menominee

One of the more visible landmarks from the Menominee shoreline is Chambers Island. Chambers Island is 7 miles off the coast of the Door Peninsula and 12 miles northeast of Menominee.  2,834 acres in size, the Chambers Island lighthouse operated from 1867 until its deactivation in 1961.  The Catholic Church maintained a retreat house on Chambers Island from 1951 until 2014, welcoming 62,000 guests over that period.  There are two dirt roads and a 1,200 foot gravel airport runway on the island, but no commercial electricity.  The 2000 census did not report any permanent population.  When I was 13 or 14 Bill Caley Sr. took a group of us by boat to Chambers Island, and, like inhabitants from Lord of the Flies, we set up our camp at an isolated spot along the beach for a four day stay.  (20)

Because of its warmer, shallower waters, Green Bay is the most productive part of Lake Michigan for fish, other aquatic life, and as a stopover for migrating birds.  However, it’s not without problems.  The bay’s health is at risk from wetland loss, invasive species like zebra mussels and carp, urban and agricultural runoff of phosphorous and other nutrients from farms, sewage treatment systems, yard fertilizers, and industry.  As a consequence, like Lake Erie and parts of the Gulf of Mexico, Green Bay is developing a dead zone where there is so little oxygen that few or no fish or other organisms can survive.  This area begins 8 miles northeast of the city of Green Bay and extends for 30 miles north to Peshtigo.  (10)

The beach at Schloegel’s Restaurant, Menominee

We plan to get together with family members in Menominee later in the summer.  We’ll drive up through Chicago and Milwaukee and wind up traveling along the Green Bay coastline, passing through the city of Green Bay, Oconto, Peshtigo, and Marinette.  In Menominee we’ll go to the downtown historic district and check out the visiting boats in the marina.  We’ll drive along First Street with its myriad views of Green Bay and have whitefish for lunch at a bayfront window booth at Schloegel’s.  We might walk out on the pier to the North Pier Light.  We’ll cross the Menekaunee Bridge at the river’s mouth and admire the Great Lakes freighters and the local fishing boats.  We’ll stop by Henes Park and go swimming with our grandkids at the beach.  We’ll spend time with our friends Bob and Lois A., watching the Green Bay sunset from their spacious deck.  Toward the end of our trip we might follow M-35 along the Green Bay shoreline up to Cedar River or Escanaba.  Whatever the exact agenda, we know in advance that Green Bay will offer much of the natural beauty and enjoyment to our vacation experience.  

(1), Centennial History of Menominee County by E.S. Ingalls (1876, pp. 61ff.); 
(2), “Green Bay (Lake Michigan)”; 
(3), “Door County”; 
(4), “Fishing: Green Bay south of Marinette and its tributaries…”; 
(5), “Wisconsin Facts and Trivia”; 
(6), “Fox River and Green Bay Statistics”; 
(7), “Wisconsin”; 
(8), “Eye on Michigan: Historic Locations & Attractions in Escanaba”; 
(9), “Green Bay: History”; 
(10), “Scientists: ‘Dead zone’ showing up in Green Bay”; 
(11), “Menominee harbor”; 
(12), “Wisconsin’s Historic Shipwrecks”; 
(13), “Menominee park list”; 
(14), “Waters of Green Bay”; 
(15), “Wisconsin facts”; 
(16), “Green Bay: Restoring a Great Lakes Treasure”; 
(17), “Port of Green Bay”; 
(18), “Monthly Green Bay water temperature chart”; 
(19), “Origins of the French and English Names for the Bay of Green Bay”; 
(20), “Chambers Island”; 
(21) (21), “Green Bay (Lake Michigan)”; 
(22), “Door Peninsula”; 
(23), “Lake Michigan”; 
(24), “Porte des Morts”; 
(25), “Wisconsin harbor towns”; 
(26), “Wisconsin’s 12 best beaches”


  1. The only thing you failed to mention is that Green Bay is, hands down, the loveliest body of water on the planet. I'm sad to learn about the dead zone! I hope it is getting the remedial attention the Bay deserves.

    1. It is the loveliest. The source I saw sounded like they were giving it attention through planting buffers between farmlands and the water.