In summer 1934, tugboat crews in Milwaukee went on strike. But what started as a minor labor dispute became front page news with a steamship captain’s spectacular act of civil disobedience.
Before it was over, the dapper captain (he favored panama hats and kid gloves) had threatened to throw a police officer in the river and, two nights in a row evaded a cordon of authorities in order to take in a movie. For a grand finale, he treated a cheering crowd of thousands to a magnificent display of boat handling.
A city ordinance required the use of tugboats when ships reversed down either the Milwaukee or Menomonee rivers. But Great Lakes captains routinely maneuver large ships in narrow rivers and carried on without tugs while the strike lasted. The city issued citations against more than 50 ships for violating the “no backing” rule.
Captains argued that legal proceedings against ships in interstate commerce could only come through the federal courts but their refusal to comply with the ordinance enraged City Attorney Max Raskin. In mid-summer 1934, he saw a chance to even the score.
In early June, the 353-foot bulk carrier Harry T. Ewig, commanded by Capt. E.J. Bodenlos, entered the Milwaukee River and threaded its way upstream through the many downtown lift bridges and to tie up at the Fellenz Coal & Dock Co. at Commerce Street and Humboldt Avenue – as far upstream as a lake freighter can get.
Most ships defying the city ordinance used the relatively straight channel of the Menomonee, not the winding and bridge-choked Milwaukee River.
City officials ordered Bodenlos to stay put until the strike ended. But as soon as the Ewig unloaded the captain cast off and reversed downstream.
The Milwaukee Journal reported: “Under great difficulty and swinging dangerously from side to side, narrowing missing piers and bulkheads, the boat came through the Holton Street, Cherry Street, and Juneau Avenue bridges.”
At that point, Bodenlos decided the gusty winds made it too dangerous to continue, and he tied up south of the Juneau Avenue bridge. Police arrived to serve him with a citation but the captain refused to lower a ladder to allow them on board. The city attorney then ordered the fire department to supply a ladder for police. But when the fire engine appeared, the Harry T. Ewig cast off and eased into the middle of the river.
The fire truck eventually departed but the police maintained a 24-hour watch from the shore. The standoff lasted four days but doesn’t seem to have inconvenienced the captain. Two nights in succession a small boat appeared and rowed Bodenlos ashore away from the clutches of the police, where he hopped into a waiting taxi and sped off for an evening at the movies.
Bodenlos explained to reporters he was operating under maritime law and city authorities had no jurisdiction aboard his vessel. He would, he said, remain moored until he felt it safe to move into the harbor.
“Now you understand,” the captain said, “I’d be glad to surrender if the government should come after me. If I have broken any law, I’ll do what’s right, but nobody’s coming aboard my ship unless I say so.”
“I’m having a lot of fun,” he added. “The ship has plenty of food and water and I must say that Milwaukee’s movies are first class. I can see no reason for concern. My crew of 29 are all buckos and they’re with me to a man.”
On day four of the standoff, Tuesday, June 12th, City Attorney Raskin, grasping at straws, developed the novel theory that since the wages of the boat crew had been stopped, the ship technically no longer had a crew, which meant it was no longer in commission, which meant maritime law no longer applied.
On that basis, Raskin ordered police to board the ship, docked at the Callaway Fuel Co. near the Cherry Street bridge, and arrest Bodenlos. A ladder extended from the boat to the dock and a Milwaukee Police sergeant named Smith started to climb up.
At this point, according to the Milwaukee Journal, Capt. Bodenlos, impeccably dressed in a tan summer suit, brown shirt, and white tie and sporting a red carnation in his lapel, appeared at the ship’s railing.
“If you come aboard,” he said, “I’ll have my crew throw you in the water.”
The sergeant paused midway up the ladder. “Oh, no, you wouldn’t do that,” he said.
“Oh, yes, I would,” said the captain. “And I’d still be within my rights.”
The captain looked as though he meant it. The newspaper reported Smith’s “ascent turned into a descent and he was soon back at the dock” while the ship’s crew shouted invectives.
“The language,” the Journal reporter noted, “was the sort sailors are generally credited with using.”
Matters settled down, and Sergeant Smith on the dock and Captain Bodenlos on his deck were soon engaged in amiable conversation. The captain even invited Smith to have dinner aboard the ship – provided he would leave the warrant on shore. Smith said he would have to decline.
Later that afternoon, Inspector John Bauschek was allowed to board and met privately with the captain. The two came to an agreement with Bauschek removing the police cordon and the captain agreeing to accept the citation.
Bodenlos took a cab to Police headquarters where he surrendered, was charged with violating the so-called “backing-up” law, and released on $150 bail. It seemed the end of the story. Newspapers told readers the Ewig could not leave the river until the tug strike ended, as it would be too dangerous to attempt it.
But at 11 a.m. the following morning, the captain appeared on the bridge of his ship. What followed delighted residents, enraged officials, and made him a Great Lakes legend. In the words of the Milwaukee Sentinel: “Capt. E.J. Bodenlos, the dapper and defiant skipper of the collier Harry T. Ewig, left town yesterday to keep some appointments in Detroit and took his big ship with him – backwards down the Milwaukee River.
“He left amid the cheers and plaudits of thousands and amid the groans of police and city officials who stood helplessly by while the jaunty skipper yanked the whistle cord to let it be known that he was going places even though he had to start his journey going backwards. He backed through eight bridges, he got traffic all snarled up: he kept the Wisconsin Avenue bascule up for three-quarters of an hour and put on a “Showboat” show that thrilled his tremendous audience.”
At 11 a.m., the ship, nearly a city block in length, cleared the State Street bridge, followed by the Kilbourn Avenue bridge an hour later. But the Wells Street bridge tender refused to open the span. A city ordinance prohibits bridges from opening between noon and 1 p.m. After keeping the ship waiting for an hour, the bridge finally opened and the Harry T. Ewig continued its cautious voyage downstream. The Sentinel reported:
“On the bridge stood the captain, togged out in natty white trousers, a brown coat, white shoes, and a jaunty panama hat. He was smoking a cigar: he was wearing a pair of black kid gloves and he was keenly enjoying the show that had attracted uncounted thousands of men and women who hung over the bridge railings, who stood upon the docks and boardwalks, and who hung out of the windows in the buildings along the riverfront.”
It took 45 minutes to ease through Wells Street. The most dangerous part of the trip was at hand, the bend in the river at Wisconsin Avenue and the Ewig – maneuvering awkwardly with its rudder and propeller forward – was as long as a football field, end zones included. The first attempt nearly ended in a collision with the bridge pilings. The Sentinel picks up the story: “Captain Bodenlos raced across the bridge and back again; he was in and out of the wheelhouse, and his cigar puffed as vigorously as the stack did at the other end of the boat.”
The Ewig went back upstream until its nose was almost touching the Wells Street span and started down – this time with its anchor dragging. Again the stern drifted toward the bridge piling. Once more the captain reversed upstream until the Ewig’s bow was almost brushing against the First Wisconsin National Bank building.
The Milwaukee Sentinel quoted an onlooker, a “winsome blonde,” who said, “He’ll have the bankers right in his lap if he isn’t careful.”
After three-quarters of an hour, with the Wisconsin Avenue bridge open the whole time and stopping traffic on one of the city’s busiest streets, the big ship maneuvered through and immediately sounded its whistle for the Michigan Street bridge.
After turning at the mouth of the Menomonee to face its bow toward the lake, the Ewig tied up to take on groceries while the captain phoned company headquarters for sailing instructions.
“Talk about the boy who stood on the burning deck,” Bodenlos told reporters. “It was a pretty hot job on that bridge – toughest job I’ve had in a long time. But I’ve got a couple of appointments to keep and I had to get going.”
As the ship headed off over the lake, City Attorney Raskin drew up no less than 25 citations against the Harry T. Ewig and its captain. But, as Bodenlos had maintained from the start, the violations had to be handled in federal court. The steamship company asked a federal judge for an injunction blocking enforcement of the city ordinance, which was promptly granted effectively ending the proceedings.
Lost Milwaukee, a new book from The History Press containing the very best from Milwaukee Notebook, is now available. Click here for more details.