Port Washington Harbor Walk

Port Washington Lighthouse and Breakwater


The picturesque maritime city of Port Washington is nestled between its north and south bluffs at the mouth of Sauk Creek. Framed in view by a 19th-century main street, the Gothic bell tower and spire of St. Mary's Catholic Church rises over the city. A few blocks east of this postcard scene keelboats and yachts are berthed in the deepwater slips of Port Washington Marina awaiting the sunrise over Great Lake Michigan.

The central feature of Port Washington, its Lake Michigan harbor, is a series of parks, marinas, and breakwaters that are today predominantly used for recreation. Interconnected public walkways stretching from South Beach to North Beach bring walkers through every part of this historic harbor on a journey spanning 3-miles linear (6-miles out-and-back).

Along this route, walkers will encounter South Beach, an estuary and wildlife preserve, the new Coal Dock Park, Sauk Creek, Rotary Park, the historic inner harbor, the marina, the north pier breakwater and pierhead lighthouse, Veterans Memorial Park, and the North Beach. 


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group standing on edge of breakwater being sprayed with waves
Enjoying the cool breeze and waves at the Port Washington Lighthouse



In its earliest days, the mouth of Sauk Creek may have been a safe harbor for only the smallest of vessels, but Port Washinton was never truly a natural harbor, it is a manufactured harbor. The city was established by General Wooster Harrison in 1835 and a dock on the north side of Sauk Creek provided piers for mooring fishing boats. A lighthouse was erected first in 1849 on North Bluff and replaced by the 1860 Light which has been renovated into a museum you can reach via a staircase climbing the bluff from East Jackson Street at Harborview Lane.

The harbor was first established in 1869 when two basins were excavated. These basins remain today as the inner harbor. By 1888 two long concrete pier walls were constructed flanking the entrance to the basins. A square pyramidal pierhead light was added to the end of the north pier that was served with an elevated walkway and gasoline pipeline.

1915 Plat Map
1915 Plat Map
North West Publishing Co.; Volk, Albert [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

historic image of lighthouse
Original 1888 Port Washington Pierhead Light with 1860 Light beyond in the distance
US Coast Guard Archives
In 1931 work began on the modern harbor designed by the Army Corps of Engineers, a major public infrastructure project of the Depression era. At the same time, a massive modern coal-fired power plant was erected at South Beach. The rock mound breakwaters were added and a new north pier leading out to Port Washington's signature Art Deco styled pierhead light. But, even with these improvements, sailors would moor their boats offshore before storms to avoid having their hulls dashed against the concrete and stone breakwater walls.

In 1993, the Baird company completed a study and recommendations for the redesign and reconstruction of the inner harbor which included improvements to the turning basin bounded by the north breakwater.

Today, the marina and inner basins are safe and peaceful harbors protected behind a maze of improved rock mound breakwaters. Wide wood docks and slips ring the inside of the inner harbor, offsetting boats from concrete walls. Restoration efforts continue on the north pier, breakwater, and pierhead light.

Sources:

NOAA Inner Harbor Improvement Report

Lighthouse Friends

The History of Port Washington in Ozaukee Wisconsin


VISITING THE PORT WASHINGTON HARBOR

My affinity for the Port harbor goes back to my days growing up in the area. I spent countless teenage nights stargazing with friends laying below the lighthouse with our legs dangling above the lake waves, laughed beside bonfires on the North Beach, and fell asleep to the regular 7-second drone of the foghorn beside beach fires at Lion's Den. Many times we tested the weight of the waves that crash over the breakwater on our daring excursions to the lighthouse. And, even before that, my dad took me out at night to watch the alewife fishermen cast their nets and shine lanterns into the deep water off the breakwater.

Port Washington is a charmed seaside village, freshwater though it may be. You can easily spend a day or weekend in Port and find plenty to do. To start things off, explore the harbor walks. For the full long-walk experience start at South Beach. A new parking lot near the beach is tucked behind the new power plant. You'll follow the shoreline and head north from there.

After a quick loop around a wildlife conservation park, you'll cross the water intake channel for the power plant and over to Coal Dock Park. When the power plant was upgraded the old coal dock where 70 foot high mountains of coal had been stored was transformed into a massive green space. Follow the paved path to the north side of the dock where there is a long walkway extending from the turning basin to the mouth of Sauk Creek.

Cross a pedestrian bridge over Sauk Creek and continue through the inner harbor and around Rotary Park. Another public walkway extends past the Port Washington Marina. That path will lead to the recently improved north breakwater.

The breakwater is a half-mile long walk to reach the lighthouse. The first portion of the breakwater is wider with fresh concrete decking. The path narrows to a single track over older concrete piers. These piers have large mooring bollards sticking out of them in the middle of the path. These are for larger ships to tie off to when docking in the turning basin. The pavement on the breakwater is often wet with the spray from lake waves, and the entire path can be ice covered in winter. There are no handrails. So, you'll have to be the judge of whether you can safely make it the full distance to the lighthouse, and in many conditions it will not be safe. Remember that the breakwater is maritime infrastructure and not meant for pleasure walking. But, on a calm summer afternoon, it will be a journey with great views that you'll remember.

From the breakwater, walkers will have a few options. One option is to walk two blocks west on E. Jackson Street and take the staircase up North Bluff to the 1860 Lighthouse. The Lighthouse includes a historical museum and tour of the restored house. Option two is to walk along the Ozaukee Interurban Trail through the woods along a creek up to Lake Park. Option three is to keep heading north along the lakeshore and then along the North Beach to reach Mile Rock. Mile Rock is located one mile north of Sauk Creek. You'll know it when you reach it. It is painted over with the artwork of generations of local amateur artists.

If you complete the walk from South Beach to Mile-Rock on North Beach, along with the breakwater, and return, you'll have hiked over 6 miles ... so bring comfy shoes.

There's plenty of other things to do in Port. There's an Exploreum museum in addition to the 1860 Lighthouse Museum. There are also charter fishing boats and sailing excursions that begin in the inner harbor. There are plenty of places to fish. And, you can swim at either of the two beaches. That's all in addition to shopping, restaurants, taverns, and coffee shops all within walking distance from the Port Washington harbor and marina.


boats in slips in a marina
Port Washington Marina


Port Washington Harbor Walk


COUNTY: Ozaukee
COMMUNITIES: Port Washington

TOTAL MILES: 3-miles linear
DIFFICULTY: Very Easy
PAVEMENT: Concrete and crushed stone walkways




Directions and Trail Map


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Address for your GPS: 211 E Main St, Port Washington, WI 53074 (City Lot C-4 at the Inner Harbor)
| coordinates: 43.388334, -87.868480 |

From Milwaukee1/2 Hour
From Madison2 Hours
From Green Bay1.25 Hours
From Wausau3 Hours
From Minneapolis5.5 Hours
From Chicago2 Hours



Photos


boats in slips in marina
Port Washington Marina

Concrete breakwater and walking route into the marina
Port Washington Breakwater

public walkway along the edge of a marina
Port Washington Marina Walk

boats in slips in the marina
Port Washington Marina

Gazebo in Rotary Park
Gazebo in Rotary Park

On the Dock at the Port Washington Marina
On the Dock at the Port Washington Inner Harbor






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