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All hands on deck: Milwaukee Clipper preservation needs volunteers

MUSKEGON, Mich. (WOOD) — Once a Lake Michigan passenger ferry but now a museum, the Milwaukee Clipper has been docked in Muskegon for decades.

“You’re going back in time, basically,” volunteer coordinator Brock Johnson said. “When you come on board you just fall in love with the ship. There’s just so much to see, so much to do.”

Despite the vessel’s designation as a National Historic Landmark, it’s in rough shape. You can help save it. 

In 1997, Milwaukee Clipper Preservation Inc. paid $1 to buy the 361-foot-long cruise vessel. Now, visitors can tour it for a few bucks each. As they look around, it’s clear it needs work — paint is peeling and metal is rusting.

“We need to preserve this ship for the future generations,” Johnson said. “I would like to see everything restored to how it was originally. There’s always work to be done, you know? Countless projects. Work from anything from painting to welding, there’s so much to do.”

Paintings of the Milwaukee Clipper. (April 5, 2021)

The Milwaukee Clipper was built in 1904, which makes it older than the Titanic by five years. If you ask Johnson, the “Queen of the Great Lakes” is just as beautiful as the famously luxurious but ultimately doomed Titanic — or, at least, it could be. 

“She’s still holding up. She’s really solid, you know? They built ships tough back then but it’s evident there is lots of work we need help with here,” Johnson said. “I see myself working on here until the day I die. You know? I never want to leave.”

Johnson is 17. The Northview High School junior is by far the youngest member of Milwaukee Clipper Preservation Inc. and has been for a while — he started worked there at age 12. As a board member, he had keys to the Milwaukee Clipper before getting keys to his first car.

“This is my home,” he said.

“Brock is not only a good worker on the ship but he’s my good friend,” museum curator Ray Hilt said. “It’s a fun job, working here. I get dirty and I’m involved in painting and restoring, but this is just a fun job.”

Hilt, 68 years Johnson’s senior, is also in love with the ship. He helped bring it back to Muskegon in 1997 and has been at its side ever since.

“My wife refers to the Clipper as my ‘iron mistress,’” Hilt joked. “Once it was here, then I just couldn’t stand it any longer. I had to get involved.”

He and Johnson’s unlikely friendship is built on a shared passion: preserving the Clipper.

“Brock and I have gotten to be fast friends. You can tell his enthusiasm and between the two of us, it’s which one has the most enthusiasm for this ship and it’s a debate at this point,” Hilt said. 

Milwaukee Clipper volunteer coordinator Brock Johnson (left) and museum curator Ray Hilt (right) in front of the vessel docked in Muskegon. (April 5, 2021)

Their enthusiasm alone cannot save their love.

“I know two or three people is not enough to take care of this 361-foot-long vessel, so we’re calling on the community to come on down to the ship and help us out,” Johnson said. “It’s a part of the community. It’s part of Muskegon. It’s part of its rich history. We want to preserve it. We want to make it so future generations can come down to the ship and enjoy what we’re enjoying right now.”

Milwaukee Clipper Preservation Inc. is looking for volunteers and will hold a volunteer open house orientation April 11 from 12:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. The group is looking for help from anyone, but especially painters and engineers.

“Any task you can think of, we need help with on board. There’s always work on board. We have so much to do still,” Johnson said. “We need help down here or else we fear that this ship will not be here in another 10 or 20 years.”

Volunteer signup is available on the group’s website or Facebook page