LAKESHORE REGIONAL NEWS: Door County, Kewaunee County, Manitowoc County, and Sheboygan County

Street Cred: An in-depth look at historic Downtown Manitowoc

Local News

MANITOWOC, Wisc., (WFRV) – As communities emerge from the pandemic, some are hoping to survive, others are planning to thrive.

Historic Downtown Manitowoc looks like a construction site lately as work continues for a new beautification project along 8th Street. A new fountain will soon welcome visitors and regulars alike just steps from the Maritime Museum.

For Mayor Justin Nickels, now in his fourth term, it is the realization of his vision for a more densely populated downtown.

“If you look at where we are on 8th Street near Maritime, this is where the city began,” Nickels told Local Five’s Michele McCormack in the first installment of her new series “Street Cred” on Local 5 News. “Manitowoc would not be here today if it were not for the confluence of the Manitowoc River and Lake Michigan.”

Manitowoc is 151 years old this year and many of the buildings pre-date that. As a heart and soul corridor of the community, Nickels never wants to forget its past while developing its future.

And who would want to forget this lakeshore community’s grand history?

Certainly not me as I visited for the first time recently to gain some street cred of my own as a news anchor by getting out of the studio and into the neighborhoods of Northeast Wisconsin.

I was fascinated to learn from Nickels that many folks were working and living here before Manitowoc was even officially a city. Back then, they hoped to have the main street through town go east to west. But the bridge and the river brought so much traffic along 8th Street that it became the foundation upon which the community was built.

Manitowoc is the maritime capital of Wisconsin.

It was at the center of America’s wartime effort in the ’40s and an unsuspecting player in the space race with Russia in the ’60s.

The legendary Abbott and Costello performed here to raise money for war bonds and the Lincoln High School “Ships” found glory on the hardwood in the ’60s.

In modern times, Manitowoc made history by electing Nickels to the city council at 18 and the mayor at 22. He’s in his fourth term.

It hasn’t all been glorious. Manitowoc suffered greatly during the depression. Its legendary Manitowoc Shipbuilding Company saw its workforce greatly depleted.

But then the entire community celebrated when it won a major contract with the Navy at the start of World War II.

“So they had to learn to build submarines really fast,” explained retired UWGB Manitowoc history professor Kerry Trask. “And with so many going into military forces they had to find people and they employed a lot of women as welders and machinists.”

Trask says folks would line the shoreline to see them launch the submarines. 28 in all that was ahead of schedule and under budget.

“Every time a submarine was launched they had to launch them sideways because the river was too narrow,” Trask says. “The whole town showed up and closed down. It was a rallying point. Nobody thought you could do it. It is in many ways the Manitowoc’s finest hour.”

Manitowoc also shows a sense of humor when it became an unsuspecting player in the U.S. and Russian space race of the 60’s when pieces of the Russian satellite Sputnik IV landed on 8th Street. Remnants are on display at the Rahr-West Art Museum. First detected by some police officers on patrol who didn’t think much of it.

“It wouldn’t be that unusual, given all the manufacturing here, to see a smoking piece of metal in the street,” explains the museum’s executive director Greg Vadney. “But when the officers got back to the precinct they heard the military and FBI was combing the area and that’s when they said maybe that’s what we saw.”

It’s a little tricky to get a photo over the exact spot given the traffic. Instead, they invite you to attend the “Sputnik Fest” in September which is a fun-filled, tongue-in-cheek celebration and fundraiser for the museum which features exhibits from Georgie O’Keefe and Andy Warhol and remains free to the public.

These days the holes in the ground are more intentional. A nearby apartment complex is going up around the corner from the heart of downtown. Mayor Nickels wanted the parcel of land right on the water for years. The council finally approved its purchase from a railroad company. An 80 unit complex will soon be going up and that requires some new access roads.

They’re also working on a year-round entertainment complex along the wharf and can’t wait for the return of “Balloon Glow” when hot air balloons illuminate the shoreline in the summer.

It’s this combination of history, entertainment, and water views that Nickels believes will keep natives home and beckon visitors to stay.

“You want to create that sense of home,” says Nickels. “Because people want a place where they enjoy to be after work. If they’re stuck at home all day, they want to go up and down downtown to different shops, restaurants, and bars. It’s all part of the vibe of creating a sense of place. I want everyone to feel Manitowoc is home if they live here.”

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