Kewaunee first developed as a lumber town. Its proximity to northern forests and excellent transportation connections made it a prime location for sawmills and furniture factories. As the city expanded, a variety of retail and commercial enterprises also grew up, and Kewaunee became a thriving community with a diversified economic base. Kewaunee's natural harbor was a major factor in the development of the early settlement.
The first recorded visit by a sailing craft was the schooner Rochester in 1847. In the summer of 1856, the side wheel steamer Cleveland began making regular trips along the west shore as far as Green Bay, stopping at Kewaunee. In 1859, a second pier was constructed to accommodate the rapidly growing schooner and steamer traffic, which served both commercial and passenger uses. In 1859, the citizens called several meetings to make plans for developing the harbor, but the Civil War intervened, and work on the present-day harbor was not begun until 1881.
In 1891, Kewaunee was one of the great marine ports of the northern lakes. Rail service came to Kewaunee in 1891, with the building of the Kewaunee, Green Bay and Western Railroad. Kewaunee's transportation links were further enhanced in 1892, when the first car ferry service across Lake Michigan was instituted between Kewaunee and Frankfort, Michigan.
Kewaunee's first bridge was constructed across the river at the end of Main Street in 1868. This structure was dismantled in the 1880's when the car ferry slip was built. In 1897, the Frank Hamachek Machine Co. erected a pontoon bridge to the ferry slip, but it only remained in use a few years. Joseph Duvall, a prominent businessman, offered to build a bridge across the Kewaunee River in 1898. A second iron bridge built in 1905 crossed the river at Park Street. A concrete bridge was constructed in 1929, and remained in use until the present bridge was built in 1985.
Kewaunee has experienced several major fires in the course of its history. In 1871, the infamous Peshtigo Fire, which killed 150 people and devastated 400 square miles in Kewaunee and Door Counties, reached the edge of town, but was stopped by a timely rainfall before doing serious damage. Kewaunee's worst fire -- the so-called "Great Fire" -- occurred in 1898, and destroyed much of the central business district of the city. A third fire in 1958 destroyed the two story brick Federated Store building on Milwaukee Street.
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Kewaunee was a prosperous community with a thriving economy, based at first on its proximity to Wisconsin's northern forest and excellent transportation connection, and later on its diverse retail and manufacturing base. This prosperity is reflected in the Marquette Historic District, which was developed, beginning in the 1880's, when wealthy business owners and their families desired new, large homes farther from downtown. Over the years, few alterations have been made to the original fine homes built by Kewaunee's elite, and the houses have been well maintained by their subsequent owners, preserving the atmosphere of prosperous late nineteenth and early twentieth century residential neighborhood.
With a proud maritime and ethnic heritage, Kewaunee offers interesting historical tidbits around every corner. For instance, the first doctor's office in Wisconsin was opened in Kewaunee in 1874, and you can still see the building today right on Milwaukee Street. The U.S.S. Pueblo along with other World War II naval vessels, was built and launched in Kewaunee. – less–ZoomInfo