Kewaunee’s rich history dates all the way back to the seventeenth century and the famous French explorer, Jean Nicolet. When he visited in 1634, it was the site of a large Potowotami village. Forty years later, on November 1, 1674, Father Jacques Marquette celebrated the Holy Sacrifice of Mass in what is now Kewaunee. The event is commemorated with an historical marker.
More than a hundred years later, in 1795, Jacques Veau, a French trader, established a trading post at the mouth of the Kewaunee River. The first permanent European settlement began in 1836, when rumors of gold having been found near the mouth of the Kewaunee River led to “gold fever”. Preparations were made to lay out a city which was confidently expected to rival Chicago in importance.
Joshua Hathaway, a prosperous land developer, purchased lots in Kewaunee, and was commissioned by the district surveyor to lay out the town. He arranged the area in wide avenues averaging 75 feet, with 50×150 foot lots. Lots started selling that fall, but when the gold boom turned bust, the land speculators moved on.
In 1837, the Chicago firm of Montgomery & Patterson built a mill on the Kewaunee River about three miles from the outlet. The mill was abandoned soon after and reverted to Joshua Hathaway, the original owner, who sold it in 1843 to John Volk of Illinois. In 1850-51, a pier was built into Lake Michigan, and Volk began to expand, building a water mill on the river and a steam mill on the lake.
Kewaunee County was separated from Door County on April 16, 1852 and organized independently the following November. Settlement began in earnest around the same time, as land sales were opened up and Yankees flocked to the area from the East Coast. They were followed by a large influx of European immigrants, including many Bohemians. Kewaunee was incorporated as a Village in 1873, and became a City twenty years later.
Kewaunee first developed as a lumber town. Its proximity to northern forests and excellent transportation connections made it a prime location for sawmills and furniture factories. As the city expanded, a variety of retail and commercial enterprises also grew, and Kewaunee became a thriving community with a diversified economic base. Kewaunee’s natural harbor was a major factor in the development of the early settlement.
The first recorded visit by a sailing craft was the schooner Rochester in 1847. In the summer of 1856, the side wheel steamer Cleveland began making regular trips along the west shore as far as Green Bay, stopping at Kewaunee. In 1859, a second pier was constructed to accommodate the rapidly growing schooner and steamer traffic, which served both commercial and passenger uses. In 1859, the citizens called several meetings to make plans for developing the harbor, but the Civil War intervened, and work on the present-day harbor was not begun until 1881.
In 1891, Kewaunee was one of the great marine ports of the northern lakes. Rail service came to Kewaunee in 1891, with the building of the Kewaunee, Green Bay and Western Railroad. Kewaunee’s transportation links were further enhanced in 1892, when the first car ferry service across Lake Michigan was instituted between Kewaunee and Frankfort, Michigan.
Kewaunee’s first bridge was constructed across the river at the end of Main Street in 1868. This structure was dismantled in the 1880’s when the car ferry slip was built. In 1897, the Frank Hamachek Machine Co. erected a pontoon bridge to the ferry slip, but it only remained in use a few years. Joseph Duvall, a prominent businessman, offered to build a bridge across the Kewaunee River in 1898. A second iron bridge built in 1905 crossed the river at Park Street. A concrete bridge was constructed in 1929, and remained in use until the present bridge was built in 1985.
Kewaunee has experienced several major fires in the course of its history. In 1871, the infamous Peshtigo Fire, which killed 150 people and devastated 400 square miles in Kewaunee and Door Counties, reached the edge of town, but was stopped by a timely rainfall before doing serious damage. Kewaunee’s worst fire — the so-called “Great Fire” — occurred in 1898, and destroyed much of the central business district of the city. A third fire in 1958 destroyed the two story brick Federated Store building on Milwaukee Street.
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Kewaunee was a prosperous community with a thriving economy, based at first on its proximity to Wisconsin’s northern forest and excellent transportation connection, and later on its diverse retail and manufacturing base. This prosperity is reflected in the Marquette Historic District, which was developed, beginning in the 1880’s, when wealthy business owners and their families desired new, larger homes, further from downtown. Over the years, few alterations have been made to the original, fine homes built by Kewaunee’s elite. These houses have been well maintained by their subsequent owners, preserving the atmosphere of prosperous late nineteenth and early twentieth century residential neighborhood.
With a proud maritime and ethnic heritage, Kewaunee offers interesting historical tidbits around every corner. For instance, the first doctor’s office in Wisconsin was opened in Kewaunee in 1874, and you can still see the building today right on Milwaukee Street. The U.S.S. Pueblo along with other World War II naval vessels, was built and launched in Kewaunee.
Today, Kewaunee’s location en route to Door County, as well as its own intrinsic attractions, makes it a popular tourist destination.