History comes alive in this scenic maritime community on Lake Michigan’s coast
Port Washington, with its touch of New England charm, is nestled on the Wisconsin shore of Lake Michigan just north of Milwaukee. You’re invited to take some time to see all this harbor town has to offer.
One of the first things you’ll see coming down the hill to the lake is the art deco lighthouse. Whether you are boating, fishing, walking on the beach or in any of the lakeside parks, this iconic symbol of the community has kept watch at the end of a half-mile long pier for almost 85 years. It has served as a touchpoint and inspiration for visitors, residents, artists and photographers. A walk out to the lighthouse is tradition for many festival-goers.
As for the fishing – it is unsurpassed, even year-round. Fishing from shore – or from the breakwall leading to the art deco lighthouse – is popular for anglers of all ages. In the fall, anglers line the walkway at Fisherman’s Park and the banks of Sauk Creek to try their luck at catching the salmon swimming upstream.
In winter, the promenade at Coal Dock Park is full of hardy anglers fishing where the warm water outlet from the power plant is discharged. It keeps the water ice free and attracts many species of fish. Port Washington has an excellent reputation for sport fishing, whether you head out with one of our charter captains or launch your own boat. On any given day, people are bringing in salmon, steelhead, lake trout and brown trout.
One of the reasons for this reputation is due to the lakebed topography offshore. You can reach the deep water much more quickly here than in other harbors, due to the lake floor dropping off rapidly closer to shore. This allows anglers to actually spend more time fishing and less time and gas motoring out to deep water. If you want to know conditions before you head out, call the toll-free Fishing Hotline provided by Great Lakes Sport Fishermen at 866.516.2796.
Port Washington features two fishing derbies every summer, with great prizes, good food, and even music. The recent Great Lakes Sport Fishing Tournament was held June 29 to July 1. The Port Washington Lions Club also sponsors a tournament along with their annual Lionsfest, which is scheduled August 3-5. Not only do you have a chance to compete with other fisherman for big prize money and bragging rights, but you’ll be supporting two non-profit organizations that benefit Port Washington and its sport fishing industry.
Now, for the more adventurous, there is spear-fishing! Yes, you read that correctly. There’s something to be said for putting on your SCUBA gear, grabbing your spear gun and jumping into Lake Michigan to go fishing!
Did you know the state Department of Natural Resources allows lawful use of spears and spear guns by skin and scuba diving in all waters where spearing for rough fish is permitted from sunrise to sunset during the listed spearing seasons? One of the more popular fish that we like to spear is the Burbot (Lota lota). They live in and around the shipwrecks located in Lake Michigan and are very delicious to eat! Stop in or call Port Deco Divers at 262.268.8400 to schedule your next charter to go spear fishing.
Fishing in Port Washington in the future can possibly be even better than it is now. There is a group in Port Washington called Shipwreck Education and Preservation Alliance, a 501c(3) organization actively working to create a better fish habitat. The group’s master plan is to develop a public access into Lake Michigan that will be donated to the City of Port Washington. Additionally, this project will create multi-level depths of artificial reefs that will help improve the aquatic environment. By establishing these artificial reefs, it gives the fry fish a habitat to live in when they are released into Lake Michigan.
This initiative will also aid in the education and research projects for schools and colleges to study the native and invasive species in Lake Michigan, and will serve as a model for other communities of the Great Lakes region. To learn more or to help, visit shipwreckeducationandpreservationalliance.com.
Downtown Port Washington
The downtown is lakeside and within walking distance from the marina, which is appreciated by boaters and fishermen. Downtown offers unique dining destinations – many housed in historic storefronts. There are numerous pubs to toast your successful catch, including a micro-winery, and restaurants where you can grab a bite to eat after time on the lake. All are locally owned, and very different in their offerings.
Whether you are in the mood for a brewpub, BBQ, Mexican, Italian, deli, supper club fare, or even fresh farm-to-table, you’ll find all of these options in downtown Port Washington. Relax and enjoy: inside, outside, lakeside, or streetside. And if you’re the type that likes a stroll with homemade ice cream after dinner, you’ll find that as well. Saturdays also feature a popular lakeside beer garden, with food and music.
You may not normally shop when you are in town for a fishing trip. But Port doesn’t have just the typical, touristy shops. Ewig Brothers is a fish market that can smoke, and even ship, your catch for you. The market has been in the same family for over 75 years, so they know how to do it right!
Include a stop into Bernies old fashioned meat market. Even if you don’t buy anything, it’s worth it for the smell. Duluth Trading Company is popular outdoor gear store in town, with a second, Sherper’s, slated to open later this summer. Plus, if you are here on a Saturday, you can pick up some fresh food at the downtown farmers market.
While you are walking around the downtown, you probably noticed the interesting architecture and age of some of the buildings. Port Washington can boast more pre-Civil War buildings than any other city in the State of Wisconsin. Several of these have been beautifully restored by the Port Washington Historical Society and are definitely worth a visit.
The 1860 Light Station, situated atop the hill near St. Mary’s Catholic Church on Johnson Street, offers tours every Friday, Saturday and Sunday from Memorial Day weekend through mid-October. Hours are noon to 4 p.m., and the $5 admission fee is well worth the tour.
The lighthouse proper has been restored to its glory days of the 1800s and the guided tour gives you a short history lesson in living in that era and what it was like to work as a lightkeeper. The climb to the lantern room and view from the tower are spectacular. On the grounds of the Light Station you can learn about the many maritime artifacts displayed, and in the little white building in the back of the lighthouse is a small maritime museum full of information and artifacts on local lore and area shipwrecks.
Another building in downtown, the Barnum Blake Building on North Franklin Street, was purchased by the Port Washington Historical Society several years ago. Built in 1852 by one of the city’s leading entrepreneurs of the day, this structure had been used as a general store, a jewelry store, and many other merchants have inhabited it over the 150-plus years of its existence.
When they peeled back all the layers of paint, carpeting, fluorescent lighting and other modern touches that had been added over the years, we found stunning hardwood floors and stamped tin ceilings, which were preserved. This is the Historical Society’s main office and serves as the Resource Center. The present exhibit is about local World War I veterans and their stories. The Resource Center is open Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays from 1 to 4 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
The Historical Society’s most recent restoration is the Henry & Hill Building, which was built in 1907 as a club for local businessmen. The original bowling lanes, marked by different types and shades of wood, have been preserved on the first floor, as well as the beautiful brick walls and façade. Now known as the Port Exploreum, it’s located at 118 N. Franklin St. and is open Wednesdays through Sundays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. As the Historical Society’s history and maritime museum, the main exhibit changes about every 12 months and presently displays the history of some of the residents of the area during the late 1800s.
The maritime aspect of the Port Exploreum is a permanent attribute. Called the Lake Michigan Table, it is an interactive, real-time display of the entire Lake, showing what vessels are sailing, weather conditions, and history of various ports along its shore. There is also a wonderful lower level created especially for children and their families, with interactive games related to the lake and ecology.
Plan your Lake Michigan fishing trip or vacation with our visitor’s resource guide for hotels, bed and breakfasts, shopping, events, farmers markets, lakefront festivals and more. Once you are here, make sure to stop by the historic Pebble House Visitor Center for more information. And don’t forget your camera – there are breath-taking views everywhere you look.