We don't typically view industrial sites like this with the kind of passion or nostalgia that old mansions or schools or churches inspire in us. But although it looks perhaps like little more than an old manufacturing shed, the 1957 Advance Boiler & Tank building at 1711 S. Carferry Dr. on Jones Island is a remnant of a moment of great optimism and opportunity in Milwaukee.
And, despite its now desolate look, this empty shed is a reminder of the importance of spaces like this, where thousands of Milwaukeeans worked for decades, allowing them to support families and contribute to the city’s economy.
The building, due to be torn down soon, was erected as part of a lakefront construction boom spurred by the imminent opening in 1959 of the St. Lawrence Seaway, which connected the Port of Milwaukee to the oceans of the world.
“This is a story of the history of the Port of Milwaukee,” says Port Director Adam Tindall-Schlicht, of the site, "and also the future of the port.
“So much of what you see on Jones Island was built to coincide with the traffic that came with the seaway opening. When you look to the future, now you have a new agricultural export company.”
When the building is demolished, it will be replaced by a new one for the Clinton-based DeLong Co., which will ship grains like soybeans, corn and wheat, oilseeds and animal feed products from around the upper Midwest to the facility by rail and truck.
At Jones Island, those products, in containers, will be loaded onto vessels for shipping around the globe, but primarily to East Asia.
First, the history...
St. Lawrence Seaway
Before railroads girdled the country, the opening of the Erie Canal in 1821 simplified travel and shipping between the Great Lakes and New York City and the Atlantic Ocean, helping to drive the push west by opening up places likes Milwaukee and Chicago to immigrants and goods.
Nearly a century later, the St. Lawrence Seaway – with its system of canals and locks augmenting the St. Lawrence River in the U.S. and Canada – took the possibilities even further, and its opening was a moment to be celebrated.
On June 26, 1959, the seaway was officially opened with President Dwight Eisenhower and Queen Elizabeth II – who had toured the Great Lakes in her yacht for the occasion – on hand. The celebration was a long and big one, with even the U.S. Navy and Marines taking part in the form of Operation Inland Seas, which brought 28 naval vessels sailing through the seaway.
Some of them headed to Milwaukee, where they staged a beach landing at the lakefront. (My dad was on one of the the Marines storming out of an LSD toward Lincoln Memorial Drive, leading to my very existence.)
Since the seaway opened, according to the History Channel, over $300 billion worth of cargo has flowed along the channel in the form of more than two billion tons of cargo.
Milwaukee businessmen could see the dollar signs years before the icebreaking ship D’Iberville became the first vessel through the canal in April 1959 and they wanted Milwaukee to get its share.
Advance Boiler & Tank
In 1919, William Andrae founded Advance Boiler and Tank Company, riveting and welding tanks and other products in a facility on 30th and Walnut Street, right alongside the 30th Street freight railroad cut.
A Kewaskum native, Andrae moved to Milwaukee in 1904 (no relation to the Andrae family that donated the lakefront land that would become Terry Andrae State Park in Sheboygan.)
By 1920-1, the company was advertising the sale of upright steam boilers, but also the riveting of smoke stacks and general metal plate work, too.
Over time, Advance grew and acquired an adjacent building to the west of its 3033 W. Walnut St. headquarters, too, via its own Advanced Renting and Real Estate Co.
Andrae’s son William M. Andrae had also joined the company, and when in May 1950, the elder Andrae died after a long illness, William M. became president.
By this time, it was clear that the seaway was coming. Proposals to build it had already been floated 60 years earlier and a study was undertaken in the 1920s.
A decade later, the U.S. and Canada signed a treaty signaling their intention to create the seaway, though it failed to garner enough votes to pass the U.S. Senate, despite gaining a majority.
But in 1951, after two decades of false starts, Canadian Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent told the U.S. that his country was tired of waiting and planned to forge ahead alone, providing the shove the U.S. needed.
Speaking of shoves, back in Milwaukee, in late February 1954, the Milwaukee Journal ran an eye catching three-column photo on the front page of its business section.
“Workers squeezed a 50-foot metal boat through a doorway at the Advance Boiler & Tank Co., 3033 W. Walnut St., Thursday, The big vessel had to be tipped up on its side. It will be moved to Jones Island by truck.”
Two days earlier, the U.S. House Committee on Public Works had approved a bill for the joint U.S./Canadian construction of a hydroelectric dam as part of a larger St. Lawrence collaboration.
In May, Congress passed, and Eisenhower signed, the Wiley-Dondero Act authorizing construction of the $470 million seaway. Canada paid $336 million of the cost.
You can be sure William Andrae was paying close attention to the move toward seaway construction.
In March 1955, Andrae urged the Milwaukee Harbor Commission to build a ship repair facility – specifically for vessels using the St. Lawrence Seaway – on Jones Island, suggesting a 30,000-square-foot building that would cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $150,000-$300,000, and would be leased by Advance Boiler.
The commission demurred on footing the cost of the building itself, offering, instead, to lease land to Andrae for that purpose.
At the time, ship repair in Milwaukee was occurring in the Kinnickinnic Mooring Basin, which was clearly unsatisfactory in light of the boost in Lake Michigan traffic that the new seaway promised.
“Good ship repair facilities, for making above-water boiler, hull and machinery repairs, would increate the business of the port, Andrae said,” wrote the Milwaukee Journal. “If Advance undertakes the project, it would proceed before 1959, the scheduled date for the completion of the St. Lawrence Seaway project, Andrae said.
“Andrae estimated that foreign ships alone would provide Milwaukee with about $250,000 of repair business annually if a plant were built. Repair business from American and Canadian ships could boost the total to one or one and one-half million dollars a year. The only way Milwaukee can become a major Great Lakes port, Andrae said, is to provide major repair services for vessels here. Andrae also told the commission that the navy bureau of ships had expressed ‘interest’ in seeing a ship repair plant built here.”
The commission agreed to study the proposal, while Andrae went back to his board to discuss it, and by September, the item was back on the Harbor Commission agenda in the form of a proposal to lease an acre of land to Advance Boiler & Tank, with an option for two more acres, for 30 years (with a 20-year renewal), at $2,000 an acre per year plus 3 percent of the annual gross revenue over $70,000.
The gross income was expected to exceed a million dollars each year.
Three weeks later the Common Council approved the lease and two weeks after that, Advance was one of three Wisconsin shipyards to land Navy contracts for the repair of vessels in use at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center in Illinois.
The ground on Carferry Drive hadn’t even been broken yet and Advance’s new development was luring business.
Andrae, of course, was not alone in seeing the potential provided by the imminent opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway. Not by a longshot.
By September 1957, Milwaukee was already spending $5.5 million on a new Pier No. 2, “designed primarily for ocean cargo,” newspapers noted, with new berths, storage warehouses, truck concourses and other related improvements.
That December, the Sentinel wrote, “Millions of dollars’ worth of public and private construction is under way on Jones Island and elsewhere in the harbor area,” pointing to that new Pier No. 2, a new passenger auto ferry pier, major dredging and 20-acre landfill efforts, a new Jones Island viaduct at Lincoln Avenue, the removal of three dangerous railroad crossings, a half-million-dollar federal government project to improve the breakwater and the construction by the U.S. Navy of pier with a dock for the Tautog submarine at its Russell Avenue armory.
On the horizon, the Navy had plans to start work on docks for three more training ships and Wheeler Tank Lines, Hoernke Boat Co. and Miller Compressing were planning to build or expand facilities on Jones Island.
In addition, the International Salt Co. had just added a new warehouse on the island and, in spring 1957, work had begun on Advance Boiler & Tank’s 240x50-foot, $200,000 building, due for completion in July.
“In any event,” Andrae told journalists, “it will be ready to service both domestic and foreign ships before the St. Lawrence Seaway is built.”
In June, Andrae and about 50 other area business and industry leaders took a three-day tour of the seaway construction project and that same month, Advance sold one of its two Walnut Street buildings to Electro-Coatings, Inc., based in the Third Ward.
Though in late August Advance was still occupying the Walnut Street facility, by the following April the Jones Island building was complete and the company moved.
The St. Lawrence Seaway opened with all that fanfare in 1959 and business on Jones Island must have been good, because the Harbor Commission approved the lease of two additional acres to Advance under the same terms it had approved a few years earlier.
In 1976, an addition roughly doubled the space in the main bay – with its soaring ceiling and three gantry cranes (pictured below) – creating a whopping 450-foot-long space.
The company – which also repaired train car during its time on the island, as well as continuing to produce boilers and repairing ships – would remain at the site until the last year of the 20th century, when it relocated to a smaller space in the Siemens building at the old Allis-Chalmers site on 66th and Washington.
The Andrae family sold the company to Ken Griffioen in 2003, although William's son Dan Andrae stayed on as customer service and sales manager.
In 2010, BizTimes Milwaukee wrote, “Advance invested about $200,000 in new welding equipment five years ago that has improved efficiency in the fabrication process ... Orders slowed in the recession but are now steady again. Sales in 2010 were about 40 percent lower than 2009, but Griffioen projects 2011 sales will be 25 percent higher than last year.
“The company laid off about eight employees and had to reduce its second shift to a skeleton crew, but Griffioen is optimistic that he will be able to beef up the second shift again soon.”
These days, no one I asked seemed to be sure whether or not Advance even exists anymore, but according to state records it was dissolved in 2019.
Once Advance left Jones Island, says Tindall-Schlicht, the building had a few uses, though mainly as storage, including housing Milorganite, made further north on the island, for a time.
According to Port of Milwaukee Chief Engineer Brian Kasprzyk, the current building on the Jones Island site – with its gargantuan main bay and its attached single-story, wood-panelled offices (pictured below) – is expected to be dismantled by summer, with work beginning when the winter thaw begins.
The steel will likely be recycled by the contractor.
Another building across Carferry Drive will also be razed, along with a former Gillen building just south of the former Advance building.
These adjacent sites will host the new DeLong Company facility, with its large building on the site of the Advance building, and a pair of grain silos just south. Across the street they’ll construct a receiving building.
The facility will have a storage capacity of 45,000 metric tons and will be able to load 6,000 metric tons daily, with an annual capacity of 160,000 to 300,000 metric tons.
The site will also be served by new rail connections for Union Pacific and Canadian Pacific Railroads access that can handle 110 hopper cars.
The entire project will cost about $35 million, which is an investment you don’t see every day.
A commitment of several million dollars by DeLong is being packaged with $16 million from the United States Department of Transportation, $5.7 million from the Port of Milwaukee and $5 million from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation Harbor Assistance Program.
“This,” says Tindall-Schlicht, “is the largest one-time investment in the port since the 1950s, when the seaway was being built.”
If you enjoyed this article, you might like these 13 vintage photos of the Port of Milwaukee.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.