Without A Plan: Part 6 - Muskegon's Waterfront

This is part six of an eight-part series recounting my first motorcycle trip.

The weekend with friends passed quickly and Monday morning dawned with the calendar calling me home. As I strapped my leather bag to the Raider, the sun’s warmth was the Yin to the cool air’s Yang.  Having the large bag to lean against makes a tremendous difference on long rides even if the extra comfort comes with a bit of guilt about diluting the Biker Experience. But Peter Fonda leaned against a duffel strapped to the back of Captain America and that opened the door for the rest of us. Peter Fonda, my forty-six-year-old back thanks you.

  On the shore of Lake Muskegon, Muskegon, Michigan.

On the shore of Lake Muskegon, Muskegon, Michigan.

Oshkosh – home – was my ultimate destination but getting to Muskegon, Michigan, to catch the 4:00 P.M. sailing of the Lake Express high-speed ferry, which would whisk me across Lake Michigan to Milwaukee in only two hours, was the only item on my agenda. If I missed the Lake Express I could run up the coast to catch the S.S. Badger but that would add unwanted urgency to my trip. I stuck to my plan of not making a plan and followed two-lane roads west and north, each chosen as they presented themselves rather than selected in advance.

While my Friday ride east in the rain was at a relaxed, somewhat cautious pace, Monday delivered dry roads for an open throttle and spirited shifting. However, progress came in fits and starts as Michigan road crews were out in force painting new center lines. Each encounter provided an opportunity to pass and the Raider responded with exuberance when it felt my hand twist the grip. In seconds the speedometer would swing from thirty to eighty as my left foot and hand worked in unison to keep the engine in the power band. Just as quickly I would decelerate to the posted speed limit (or slightly above) or slow further as I passed through yet another town. And so the miles passed. Near Grand Rapids I chose the speed and directness of the interstate, and it felt good to roll the throttle open and leave it there. At eighty mph the bike disappeared beneath me – bike, rider, and road becoming a single harmonious unit. I was more flying three feet above the concrete than riding a machine. Yes, I was violating my No Interstates rule, but it was my rule to break and I am a biker, dammit, that is what we do.

Muskegon appeared with two hours to spare before the ferry’s scheduled departure. I needed to eat but my priority was to find the Lake Express and secure a ticket, which proved far more difficult than it should have been. While the S.S. Badger can be found literally at the end of the highway, the Lake Express is hidden behind marina buildings at the end of a nondescript road with poor signage. Three times I stopped to ask directions. Twice I was pointed in the general direction and told to look for the sign, and once I was met with an expression of bewilderment. My fourth attempt to get directions occurred in the gravel boatyard of a large marina. I rode up to two men working on a sailboat and asked, “Where is the high speed ferry?”
“It’s not here yet,” one replied.
“Where do I go to get on it?” I asked, hoping my sunglasses hid my rolling eyes.
They pointed vaguely through the gravel parking lot and motioned me on. I rode through the lot and between two large, metal-sheathed warehouses which were dripping rust, still unsure where I was going or if they had understood what I was asking. Emerging from between the warehouses I found a blacktop road that terminated in a parking lot for the Lake Express.  I bought my ticket and departed to explore Muskegon’s lakeshore and find lunch.

Muskegon has a large, active shoreline, but not on Lake Michigan, a fact I’m sure escapes the casual visitor. Muskegon crowds against the southern shore of Lake Muskegon, which is separated from Lake Michigan by a half-mile wide lick of land through which a relatively narrow channel passes providing access to the great lake and the world beyond. Without that narrow strip of land Lake Muskegon would be a large bay, and Muskegon would not be the successful port it is nor the largest city on Lake Michigan’s eastern shore.

  A wartime photo of  LST 393 , now preserved in Muskegon, Michigan.   Photo courtesy   USS LST 393 Veterans Museum

A wartime photo of LST 393, now preserved in Muskegon, Michigan. Photo courtesy USS LST 393 Veterans Museum

Cruising the primary roads that border Lake Muskegon I was treated to a smorgasbord of nautical delights. The large marinas populated by elegant white-hulled sailboats and luxurious pleasure craft are a common sight and staple of any shoreline city, but seldom does one see the variety of maritime treasures that call Muskegon home. The first to catch my eye was the hulking, camouflaged hull of the World War II Landing Ship Tank (LST) 393. This behemoth ship was designed and built during WWII to transport tanks, vehicles, and troops across the vast oceans and deliver them to shallow waters and beaches – an incredible feat for a ship of any size let alone one that weighs over 4,000 tons loaded. Of the 1,051 LST class ships built, LST 393, preserved by the USS LST 393 Preservation Association, is one of only two remaining. A true veteran, she made seventy-five voyages to three continents, including thirty round trips to Normandy in support of the epic fight to reclaim Europe. 

June 7, 1944
Under way in convoy of LSTs and various other ships enroute from Falmouth, England to Colleville, France, carrying army vehicles and army personnel. At 1010 let go bow anchor in 10 fathoms of water off Fox Green Section of Omaha, Beach, Colleville, France. Casualties brought aboard at 1135. 

-Excerpt from LST 393 War Diary

LST 393 is not the only WWII veteran that found a post-war home in the cold water of Lake Muskegon. I rode Lakeshore Drive eastward until Lake Michigan proper came in to view and Lakeshore Drive becomes the appropriately named Beach Street. Beach Street parallels Muskegon’s beautiful sand beach and was itself deeply drifted with sand in places, demanding careful navigation with the motorcycle. Beach Street lead me briefly north to the channel and then turned east becoming Fulton Ave. which is where the submarine USS Silversides, commissioned just eight days after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, is moored.

  I arrived too late to tour the  USS Silversides , who distinguished herself during WWII.

I arrived too late to tour the USS Silversides, who distinguished herself during WWII.

USS Silversides and her crews patrolled the dangerous waters of Imperial Japan where they were tasked with preventing raw materials from feeding the war effort. In this role she excelled, sinking twenty-three ships and securing herself the third highest rank for U.S. submarines in ships sunk while losing only one crew member. She survived the war and a second career training sailors in Chicago but was nearly lost in 1972 to the unemotional torches of a scrap yard. Concerned citizens stepped in and created the Great Lakes Navy Association (GLNA), to which the Navy awarded custody of the boat in 1972, the same year she was designated a National Historic Landmark. USS Silversides was moved to Muskegon in 1987 where she is being faithfully restored and cared for by the GLNA and shares a pier with GLNA’s other historic ship, the US Coast Guard Cutter McLane, whose impressive career began in 1927 to enforce, of all things, Prohibition.

Lunch took the form of a gyro from Greek Tony’s Pizza and Sub, a small, nondescript concrete building with a broad blue overhang, tiny patio, and its view of the water fully blocked by a corrugated steel mass which houses industry of some sort and most likely provides Greek Tony’s with a frequent and familiar clientele.

  "Tony" smoking out back.

"Tony" smoking out back.

The appeal of Greek Tony’s lies not in location (which is poor), quaint architecture (it has none), or sense of American institution (Greek Tony’s?), but in a simple menu spelled out in little plastic letters on a Coke sign hung above the cash register, and the smell of a large, mobile smoker in the parking lot invisibly advertising lunch throughout the neighborhood. Greek Tony’s is not serving atmosphere and nostalgia; it is serving good food at an honest price with an equally honest smile.

Muskegon is home to yet one more historic vessel whose Great Lakes maritime history and grandeur is equaled only by the efforts of a cast of volunteers who have taken up the task of restoring a 361-foot-long, 350-passenger luxury steamship using donated tools and limited funds while simultaneously working with an alphabet soup of government agencies to secure a permanent pier. The S.S. Milwaukee, “The Queen of the Great Lakes,” is over a century old and has lived many lives.

Setting sail in 1904 as Juniata, passengers enjoyed her luxurious, varnished mahogany decks, staterooms, and fine cuisine as they sailed between Buffalo, New York, and Duluth, Minnesota. In 1937 maritime laws required passenger ships be fireproof and the Juniata, with her wood decks, was docked in Buffalo. In 1940 she was taken to Manitowoc, Wisconsin, and refitted for a new career carrying vehicles and passengers across Lake Michigan. In addition to mechanical upgrades, her wood decks, staterooms, and superstructure were replaced with steel; however, with a dance floor, movie theater, and air conditioning luxury remained her hallmark. She returned to work in 1941 as the Milwaukee Clipper and carried passengers and their cars between Muskegon and Milwaukee until 1970 when the interstate highways and air travel rendered her obsolete. In 1997 she found her new, permanent home in Muskegon after having served as a museum and convention center at Navy Pier in Chicago and as the centerpiece for a marina in Hammond, Indiana. A National Historic Landmark, volunteers have invested years in her restoration while also working to get "The Queen" a more fitting home than the collapsing pier to which she is moored.

Explore your backyard….