Oshkosh was known as the "Sawdust City" because of the numerous sawmills that lined the Fox River in the past. The rivers and Lake Winnebago were the early highways and contributed to why the city was developed, helping Oshkosh become a manufacturing hub in northeastern Wisconsin. What many do not remember is that "Oshkosh on the Water" was also a center of boat manufacturing, making transportation on these important waterways possible.
Native Americans and later the French fur traders had long used canoes and bateaus, but with the coming of Eastern migrants and European immigrants, new forms of transportation would be required. In 1844 the first small steamboat, the Manchester, arrived on Lake Winnebago. The lines of navigation radiated from Oshkosh to points on Lake Winnebago; on the lower Fox River to Neenah, Menasha, Appleton, De Pere, and Green Bay; and on the upper Fox River to the river towns of Omro, Berlin, Montello, and Portage. These vessels also plied the waters of Lakes Poygan and Winneconne and north up the Wolf River. The need for steamboats, sailboats, canoes, and skiffs led to Oshkosh's boat building industry.
Steamboats were used in this area from 1844-1923 and were the major form of transportation for people and goods, varying in size from large coal barges and steam tugs for moving logs to small sport and pleasure craft used for recreation. The first steamboats built in Oshkosh were documented in 1851: the D. B. Whitacre and the Berlin. At least 36 steamboats are documented to having been manufactured in Oshkosh from 1851-1908, with seven steamboats recorded as being built here in 1871 alone. Three shipyards are listed in Oshkosh for building and repairing steamboats in the year 1876, and in 1884, two steamboat lines operated out of Oshkosh: the Fox River Transportation Company and the Lake Winnebago Transportation Company.
One of the best known Oshkosh steamboat builders, George D. Ryan, began building his boats in 1884. The company, later succeeded by his son William, also built sailboats and continued in business until 1942. They are attributed to building the last steamboat in Oshkosh, the Leander Choate (the second vessel by that name). Captained by Mike Golden, it was built in 1908 for the Oshkosh Steamboat Company as an excursion boat, measuring 126' long and 30' wide. In 1922 the Choate was rebuilt as the Valley Queen and continued as an excursion boat until it was destroyed by fire on November 10, 1922, where it was tied up for the winter on the north side of the Fox River next to Deltox Grass Rug Company at the end of Osceola Street. Interestingly, the partial remains of an old steamboat were removed from the Fox River in October 2015.
With the extensive railroad system and the advent of automobiles and trucks, this marked the end of the steamboat era in Oshkosh. Sailboats were also an early fixture in the area, making an appearance as early as 1848. Sailboats were being manufactured in Oshkosh, but the earliest date is not known. Oshkosh Yacht Club formed in 1870 with ten sailing yachts. One of its founders was Robert Brand, an Oshkosh furniture maker, who in 1872 is listed with Edwin W. Cole as manufacturers of sailboats. From 1866-1965, 34 boat builders were listed in the Oshkosh City Directories.
With the advent of gasoline powered engines, small pleasure craft became increasingly popular, leading to the formation of the Oshkosh Power Boat Club about 1905. From 1903-1908, the H. C. Doman Company is listed as a manufacturer of these craft. Jones & Laborde (J. H. Jones and George E. Laborde) manufactured both sailboats and power boats from 1903-1928. Another boat maker was the Lewis Boat Works (Henry and Harry Lewis), which operated from 1908-1938. Clark & Lund (John J. Clark and Harry A. Lund) began operations in 1940, but by the 1970s were only doing boat maintenance and repairs. Probably the best known Oshkosh power boat builder was the Dunphy Boat Corporation. They began operations in 1940 and were last listed in the directories in 1965.
Over the years many men were listed in the directories as boat builders, but no mention is made of the types of boats they made. These were in all likelihood small operations where canoes, skiffs, and rowboats were being made in limited numbers. Oshkosh also had numerous boat liveries for the rental of these smaller craft. The largest of these was begun in 1898 by Charles Dunkel and was located on the south side of the Fox River on the east side of the Main Street Bridge. It was operated by the Dunkel family until 1940 when it was sold to Chester Weed.