The city of Muskegon is steeped with incredible maritime history, as I discovered on my MittenTrip, featuring vessels such as the USS LST 393 and the USS Silversides Submarine. The National Historic Landmark S.S. Milwaukee Clipper stands out among them, due to its pristine preservation and immense Great Lakes history. Stepping aboard this luxury cruise liner was unlike anything I had ever experienced, and it felt like stepping back into the 1940s.
Dating back further than the Titanic, this cruise liner’s original hull was built as the S.S. Juniata in 1904. In 1940, this ship was stripped and rebuilt into a safer modern vessel made from steel. On June 2nd, 1941, the S.S. Milwaukee Clipper set sail on its maiden voyage as a luxury cruise liner, featuring comfy staterooms, a movie theatre, a soda bowl, a sports deck, and a dance floor. With a 3,000 horsepower Quadruple Expansion steam engine built by the Detroit Shipbuilding Company, this 361-foot ship could accommodate up to 900 passengers, 110 crew members, and 120 automobiles.
From 1941 to 1970, the S.S. Milwaukee Clipper carried thousands of passengers and automobiles from Muskegon to Milwaukee. By 1977, the Clipper was moved to Navy Pier in Chicago, operating as a floating maritime museum and convention center. After a 20-year absence, she was returned to Muskegon in 1997 by the Great Lakes CLIPPER Preservation Association. This group works to restore and preserve the Clipper, and it counts among its proud members Robert Priefer, the vessel’s last captain.
When I first boarded the Clipper I met Jim Plant, a retired Muskegon businessman and director of the Great Lakes CLIPPER Preservation Association. Plant remembers getting caught skipping school as a 9-year-old boy to see the ship arrive in Muskegon for the first time in 1941. Jim’s expertise in maritime history was astonishing as he guided our tour around the vessel.
We began in the cafeteria, which was a buffet-style restaurant that could easily seat up to 185 passengers. It was as if time stood still since all of the original furniture and appliances sat pristinely and waiting for the next group of passengers. The light pastel colors of the paneling and furniture contrasted with the stainless steel galley. Although some food was prepared in the cafeteria, the majority of the meals were cooked one deck below. Each meal was sent up by a hand-powered dumbwaiter.
We then gathered in the main lounge, where passengers would board the ship, and it felt as if we were on a movie set. The brass on the original sign welcoming passengers was shined to perfection as vintage bags waited to be taken to their staterooms on one of the two desks. In Muskegon, passengers would board on the left side of the ship, or portside, while passengers in Milwaukee would board from the right or starboard side. The same colorful aluminum-crafted furniture that filled the cafeteria was also abundant in this area as well. The S.S. Milwaukee Clipper actually contains the largest collection of Warren McArthur furniture. Since McArthur was a student of Frank Lloyd Wright, it’s not surprising to see the streamlined elegance found in his Art Deco designs.
The grand staircase was a stately welcome to those coming aboard. The grandiose feeling of this room was astounding, featuring a double staircase leading up to the next deck, a beautiful mural of Michigan above the mirrored door elevator, and a handcrafted tile mural of the ship in the center of the floor. The size of the ship became more impressive as we navigated the long corridors and endless hallways to the most recently renovated staterooms.
Each stateroom that has been restored has a plaque on the door featuring the individuals who kindly donated to help preserve the space. Altogether there are 26 two-person staterooms and 10 three-person staterooms. Every room has one or two portholes, air conditioning, fans, and beds that fold against the wall to accommodate for more living space. Stateroom number one was reserved for company executives and because of sailor superstitions, there is no room number 13.
Our group then headed to the Club Lounge, where we realized that this ship has the best views of Muskegon Lake. As we saddled up to the bar, we had a 180-degree view of all the boats speeding around the lake. Behind the bar were two Pullman Rows. Similar to booth-style seating on trains, this section allowed for up to 112 passengers to take the ship across Lake Michigan by day for cheap. At night, these sections would be converted into beds that were built into the wall and pulled down to accommodate up to 56 sleeping passengers.
We made our way up to the Wheel House on the top deck, which offered staterooms for housing the Captain. The views of Muskegon Lake were even more impressive as we entered the Pilot House. With state-of-the-art technology, this room would make any captain of the 1940s envious. As we all scattered around the room looking at the mechanisms, I noticed the high-speed Lake Express ferry pulling in to dock across from the S.S. Milwaukee Clipper. It was surreal to be aboard the ship that used to take passengers across Lake Michigan and see the latest vessel that has replaced the Clipper in taking passengers to Milwaukee.
Past the false stack (smokestacks that make it look like a coal-burning ship), we discovered the changes the sun deck had seen over the years. Half of the area was previously canvas, covering the dance floor one deck below. At night, this canvas could be rolled back so passengers could dance under the stars. In 1949, this canvas was replaced with the first-ever aluminum deck on a ship.
As we passed the sports deck and headed into the dance hall, Glenn Miller’s “A String of Pearls” could be heard faintly in the background. This was hands down my favorite room aboard the S.S. Milwaukee Clipper. All of the round tables that lined the walls and dance floor were set with white linens and tableware. The masterpiece was the oak dance floor in the middle of the room. Nautical rope and large white seahorses bordered the area, making it the focal point in the space. Towards the back of the room, a large semi-circular bar was ready to serve passengers.
Nestled next to the dance hall was a room that had been renovated from a casino into the Soda Bowl. Originally, the room was rented out to a private company that would open slot machines once the ship was at least three miles off the coast. At the time, they assumed this was international waters. However, after raids by both Michigan and Wisconsin authorities the casino was shut down. The space then became known as the Soda Bowl, which still serves soft drinks, ice cream, coffee, and snacks to passengers. Our tour guide, Jim, even offered us a seat at the counter and served us scoops of vanilla and chocolate ice cream.
Our last stop aboard the Clipper was a visit to the ship’s 144-seat theatre. In the mornings, cartoons were shown, while the evenings were spent watching first-run Hollywood features. In the back of the theatre was a children’s play area, which was regularly staffed with a nurse to watch over all the kids. Today, the original artwork of clowns and Disney characters from 1941 is still in pristine condition along the walls of the play area.
This unique tour ended back down on the car deck, in the museum where there are years of memorabilia from previous cruises and incredible model ships of some of the greatest vessels to sail the Great Lakes. There is so much history aboard this ship that I felt I couldn’t possibly retain it all in one visit. This is a must-visit location in Muskegon, and I’m eager to tour this incredible cruise liner again!
Jennifer Polasek studied writing and public relations/advertising at Grand Valley State University. She's obsessed with Michigan beaches, Michigan hockey, Jane Austen, Christmas, and coffee!