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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Developing Harbor District Signals Likely End Of Milwaukee River Marina

Milwaukee’s harbor district is evolving. On its northern edge plans are afoot for a hotel, apartment and office complex. When that happens, a decades’ long fixture will  probably disappear — Jerry's Dock.

There’s nothing pretty about the place. It’s tucked along the Milwaukee River, on the edge of its intersection with the Menomonee and Kinnickinnic Rivers, on their path to Lake Michigan.

Most of its two acres appear to be a home to misfit boats. Pointing at one of them, Jerry Guyer says, “I don’t even know what make that is, but it’s wood and many marinas won’t take a wooden boat because they’re so much work."

Credit Susan Bence
This 1922 coast guard boat is one of Jerry Guyer's permanent guests.

Guyer’s love of the water started in high school when a friend convinced him to take a scuba diving class.

“Since 1964, I’ve had most of my life somehow connected or involved with scuba either recreationally or commercially," Guyer says.

He bought a scuba business a few miles south of Jerry's Dock. Next came a charter boat, “Thinking that would be another way to get rich to take people out to Lake Michigan to the shipwrecks and dive,” he laughs.

Actually, Guyer knew no matter how creative he was, marine life was not going to support his family. So, he taught grade school and then high school for 35 years.

It turns out, locating shipwrecks brings Guyer the most joy.   

"All of this was to have money and a place and resources to buy more equipment to look for more shipwrecks,” Guyer says.

Credit Susan Bence
Guyer says he keeps his prices low. So low that some customers are surprised.

In the meantime, Guyer needed a place to dock his boat. That lead him to 318 S. Water Street 22 years ago. At the time there was little life of any kind here.

“This was an abandoned forest of nothing, and I leased 100 foot of it at the north end just for that one boat,” Guyer explains.

He began clearing the overgrown parcel. Before Guyer knew it, he was leasing two full acres.

Over time he became a go-to person on the water front. For years, Guyer donned his gear to clean the bottom of the high-speed ferry docked just south of the harbor on Lake Michigan.

“Every three weeks since the Lake Express got here, we clean the whole hull to make it shiny, smooth, to make it go faster. Without that it couldn’t go the speed it goes,” Guyer says.                 

Credit Susan Bence
Guyer uses his 1950 steel-welded hulled boat with a diesel engine to tow in docks along the downtown Milwaukee stretch of the Milwaukee River.

While he’s passed that task onto a younger diver, Guyer’s skill – along with his torpedo-shaped scanner that captures detailed underwater images — are sought after by local police and the coast guard. Guyer helps locate salvages and bodies.

“We’ve had several body searches in the river here as well in the lake. My side scan will see will see bodies on the bottom,” Guyer says. “It’s that sophisticated and detailed.”

Guyer looks up at the vacant three-story malthouse that’s been a harbor fixture for more than a century. A huge banner proclaims its planned replacement.

Credit Jerry Guyer
Sign of the future.

Guyer figures Jerry’s Dock might survive a couple more years, but he predicts his marina marks the end of an era.

“There will be no other marinas ever on the Milwaukee River. Financially it wouldn’t work because of the property values, it doesn’t raise revenue,” Guyer says.

Credit Susan Bence
Some of Guyer's shipwreck finds.

Before I leave, Guyer wants to share one last thing: a book that includes all of his shipwreck discoveries. He spotted his first shipwreck in 1984. Now he’s up to 22.

“I did find the Ashtabula, which is a wreck I looked for 30 years before I found it and that I just found last years,” he says.

Guyer is drawn like a magnet to the shipwrecks he’s yet to locate at the depths of Lake Michigan.

“There’s still a dozen or more out there that no one has ever seen. There’s one called the Northwest that’s down toward Racine that I haven’t found yet,” Guyer says.

It’s clear, Guyer’s life on the water will not end with his displacement from Milwaukee’s harbor.  

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Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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