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THE CITY REBORN FROM THE ASHES OF AMERICA'S MOST DISASTROUS FOREST FIRE
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Tales from the old-timer

Peshtigo Harbor

By Jane Thibodeau Martin,

daughter of the Old-Timer



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Peshtigo Harbor is a marshy area where the Peshtigo River empties into Green Bay. Years ago, it was accessible to cars via a rickety wooden bridge across a drainage canal, but now, to visit the ghosts of Peshtigo Harbor, you need a boat -because the bridge is gone. The wildlife enjoys peace, and the area looks much like it probably did more than a century ago.

Long ago, a small community was sited here. In the 60’s there were still visible remnants of that village, including the pilings where docks were located on the river, a few dilapidated buildings and a single remaining uninhabited home. There were a few wooden commercial fishing tugs still using the docks early on, but finally only one old wooden tug was left abandoned and continually tethered to the shore.

My parents don’t live far from the Harbor, and it was a frequent playground for our family when I was young. Some years there’d be low water and good beaches, some years the water would be so high it would intrude into the shoreline vegetation. When that happened, we would search for the items the water threw up for us to find among the brush. In those days there was no formal garbage collection, and we found old bottles and metal fragments, the trash of the settlers. The family dog would enjoy his freedom, and we’d clamber onto the old wooden fishing tug and explore it.

I have searched my memory repeatedly and can’t remember the name on bow and stern of that tug, although at one time it was as familiar as the name of our road. We’d clamber inside and out, marveling at the utilitarian design. Those old wooden tugs sat seemingly high over the water with a long front end decked over and a slightly higher pilothouse at the stern. From a distance they had the shape of a high-top work boot, and were just as practical. No foolishness like fancy paint or luxury fixtures. The open stern and opening side ports allowed for the manual setting and hauling of fishing nets. Backbreaking, dangerous work - commercial fishing is still very dangerous, but imagine those days with no way to call for help - no survival suits - no rescue helicopters.

Finally one day when I was maybe ten years old (in the mid to late sixties) we heard the old tug was to be hauled out into the bay and sunk. We made what we thought would be our final trip to see her and as I looked out the windshield of the tug from the wheel, I noticed for the very first time a silver horseshoe, nailed up above the pilothouse window. It was properly hung, like a U to hold the luck. I imagined the fisherman looking at that horseshoe and uttering a prayer as well, as he fought a sudden storm, watched ice building on his deck in the late fall, or struggled to find his way back to the harbor on a dark and windy night. I wanted it before the tug was sunk, but we had no tool to remove it. So sneaking a screwdriver with me, I begged to go back to the harbor again later in the week - to take the horseshoe.

A bit of vandalism it would have been, or outright theft, but I thought no one knew the horseshoe was there, or cared about it, and I wanted it as a keepsake of the old ship. Alas, when we returned after supper a few nights later with my tool, the tug was gone, for good. The spot along the pilings was empty.

I hope the story that she was deliberately scuttled in the bay is true. It would have been tragic for this workhorse of the water to have been burned on shore. Somewhere, at the bottom of the bay, I like to picture her sheltering fish in a sort of payback for the harvest she helped her fisherman gather for years. And up above the windshield, still holding up luck, is the horseshoe. The only more fitting place for that horseshoe would have been with the family of the hardworking fisherman who hung it there.


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Peshtigo, WI 54157
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