GRAFTON, Wis. – Grand dreams based on a solid idea led to the rise and fall of Port Ulao on the western shore of Lake Michigan in Ozaukee County. Although he never made a big splash, one of his few residents rose to world fame – sadly not for anything good.
When James T. Gifford in the early 1840s moved from Illinois to settle there, he purchased several acres of land. He intended to build a 1,000 foot pier, using it to sell lumber to the new steamboats plying the Great Lakes. The spot he chose had a 150 foot drop between the cliff and the beach on the lake. The wood would be provided by local farmers who settled and cleared farmland. It was the second pier to be built along the western shore of Lake Michigan.
According to an 1849 newspaper, Port Ulao was chosen for the city’s name after a Mexican castle in Veracruz called San Juan de Ulúa Castle. Spelling has been simplified for English speakers.
Gifford built his pier. And then he followed that with the state’s first paved turnpike, which was chartered in 1847. He is credited with inventing a simple way to build a hard-surfaced road by cutting down trees and laying them down. laying in heaps, which were then covered with clay dug from along the road. This was burnt and after cooling, leveled. Ashes mixed with clay to make the hard surface for $704 per mile. The road extended to nearby Grafton, although it was planned to go to the Wisconsin River.
Luther and Wilson Guiteau were hired in 1848 to survey the new town of 12 square blocks; they added additional land called Ulao Addition. The Guiteaus built a fine brick home that has stood the test of modern times, although in 1856 they returned to their homes in Illinois. Luther Guiteau’s son, Charles Julius, was described as a sickly, quiet, and unpopular child who would not play with the younger children in town.
Charles Guiteau went to college but failed in subsequent jobs and was described as dishonest in his dealings. He was lightly involved in politics, working on President James Garfield’s election campaign. When Garfield won the 1880 election, Guiteau asked and expected to be appointed ambassador to Europe. When he failed to procure one, he shot and killed the President, putting Port Ulao in the history books.
Meanwhile, Port Ulao had 12 to 16 families in town. Businesses included a dance hall, tavern, grist mill and railroad depot. There was also a windmill factory. Windmills were one of the first agricultural machines. They mechanized the winnowing process; a hand-cranked fan blows the grain and chaff over vibrating screens.
A second jetty was built to clean and smoke the fish. The railroad was busy and included a telegraph office. It was a popular place to ship grain and cattle. The timber trade was good; it was noted in one of the state papers that a ship named the Empire burned 600 cords of lumber, or about 10 acres, while traveling from Buffalo, New York, to Chicago.
Church services were not well attended but were performed by an old school Presbyterian named Deacon Buck. He held church in the school and read sermons from an old red book. During the week, he traveled the area with a cart, trading whatever portable property he could to support himself.
Another trade for the town was the export of limestone from Grafton. The stone was quarried nearby and shipped by rail to Port Ulao. It was a yellow stone, similar in color to the stones used in the construction of Chicago. After being mined and exposed to air, it has hardened, making it useful for buildings.
In 1850 the lumber business was sold to Captain John Howe, a veteran of the War of 1812. Requests were made to the federal government for a lighthouse on the pier and a lighthouse – at a cost of $3,500. But none were built until 1981, when Brana Kevich built a 50-foot private lighthouse.
In the winter of 1853, things were not going well. Workers cut wood for 30 cents a cord but were forced to take their wages in store certificates. Three years later, part of the town was plateauless and sold for $15 an acre. As Port Ulao suffered, nearby Port Washington grew in size.
Howe tried in 1854 to charter a state highway from Port Ulao to Milwaukee, but the Wisconsin legislature denied the request. Howe also had grand ideas about building a canal from Milwaukee to Lake Superior, and across Canada to Alaska.
After the Civil War, coal replaced wood to power steamships, and this advanced technology killed Port Ulao. During Prohibition, the Port Ulao Tavern was rumored to be the perfect place to grab some moonshine and have a rowdy time. Currently, the tavern is all that remains of the town — and, in Wisconsin tradition, a destination for a Friday night fish fry.
This is an original article written for Agri-View, an agricultural publication of Lee Enterprises based in Madison, Wisconsin. Visit AgriView.com for more information.
LeeAnne Bulman writes about agriculture from her farm overlooking the beautiful Danuser Valley on Wisconsin’s west coast. When she’s not writing, she helps her husband on their small grain and beef farm.