By Scott Sullivan
In the media room, media converge. Ex-WZZM-TV news anchor/now Saugatuck Mayor Pro-Tem Lauren Stanton, husband and Retro Boats co-visionary John Sharer and Tony (Of Love) D’Amato.
For 24 years Damato (no apostrophe) birthed and skippered the Red Dock, a Douglas harbor icon Sharer/Stanton are now taking on.
Damato’s first farewell tour here, on heels of Tower Marine owner R.J. Peterson’s death Aug. 11, 2020, age 93, proved premature.
What a place, with Peterson’s help, he’d built. At Tower’s north end a day-glow dock with bar calling to traffic just west of the Blue Star Bridge.
By car, you would turn off right, being careful of the Douglas-built separate bike lanes (turning out left was harder, especially summers when it had more bikes on it) into a gravel parking lot with rainwater-filled pothole mirrors. They beamed customers and rainbows when brightly sunny.
Park, exit, cross a land spit, to your right (east) Douglas’s Union Street public launch ramp. West waited rusted, heavy ship’s chains on low posts you could hurdle (or more rightly walk around) to a lawn greened by geese and gulls, on its far side Peterson’s red-and-white mini-lighthouse/storage building.
You’d proceed down gravel through gates almost always open to a sea shanty — from which small watercraft — surfboards, pontoons, stand-up paddleboards —could be rented. Past land’s end you’d walk unpainted planks to red-painted ones towards tunes, grog, live music Sundays and more frivolities.
By sea, you’d pull in and tie off your skiff, clamber onto scarlet boards in your swimsuited, tanned, burning body, leaving wet footprints to the bar, there soak in a rum punch, tiny icebergs inside melting, diluting and enjoy fellow human wildlife. All was well.
No wonder Douglas Poet Laureate Jack Ridl loved to read aloud there at semi-set late-August dates to crowds drinking all things in, Damato and the Red Dock muses.
The other media meeting — me, Sharer, Stanton, the late Peterson ex-officio — brought to mind duckpin bowling as a boy on a Crystal Lake-fronting merry-go-round. It had real carved wooden horses circling, bobbing up and down on poles, funhouse mirrors, calliope music and a wood lane you’d role unholed balls down trying to make standing duckpins sit. A boy at the far end would then hand reset them.
I told Tony, John and Lauren my story strategy was to set up and knock down too.
Pins could be preconctions, post-confessions, posing riddles … How many with one ball can we knock down, set more up again?
Rolland J. Peterson, born New Year’s Eve 1926, son of Rolland E. and Mildred, grew up in a Gary, Ind. different than today. Steel plants spewed post-World War II prosperity. Seen across state lines from Chicago when sailing east (perhaps later north toward Saugatuck), stacks rose, at first faint and parallel. As you neared they’d grow clearer, more distinct. From their crowns fumes dispersed first dark, then blending with neighbors, thinning, atomizing in winds which, if not from the west prevailing, might obscure them to your view in coal-smelling haze dropping embers.
Northside Chicagoans who awoke late or early, depending on what mist or clarity was in their minds, sometimes mistook flames southeast as the sunrise.
“Gary Indiana” — a song in “The Music Man,” which on Broadway in 1957 reeled in five Tonys — did not go away. “Music Man” Ron Preston reprised his title role in a 1962 movie starring also Shirley Jones, Buddy Hackett, Hermoine Gingold, Paul Ford and a young Ron Howard, busy then also playing Opie, Andy Griffith’s TV son.
R.E. “Pete” Peterson, R.J.’s dad, is described by Steve Sheridan as “a cross between Santa Claus and Spencer Tracey.” Sheridan himself is grandson of George Sheridan, Saugatuck’s last lighthouse keeper, now a retired 17-year judge.
“The Petersons were always doing something someone was complaining about,” Sheridan said. Like:
• In 1957 buying up and developing then-vacant Kalamazoo Lake waterfront plus more land in Saugatuck, Douglas, later South Haven. Rash some called it; others said “Are you kidding? Develop a marina in this location, long a tourist resort for Chicagoans, many from St. Louis and more ports on the Midwest the compass? Do so artistically, it’s a goldmine.”
Tower Marine, with the Petersons’ smaller, more utilitarian Saugatuck Yacht Services, turned into a 500+-slip, amenities-filled marina by the time it was sold or conveyed in spring 2022 to Safe Harbor Marinas. Safe Harbor owns and operates 130 such sundry ports across 24 U.S. states and Puerto Rico. Economies of scale do have advantages and Petersons had quick wits.
• The Saugatuck Chain Ferry wasn’t open enough. In use in some form since 1838, the ferry conveyed early Kalamazoo River crossers, later workers, families and tourists, from downtown Saugatuck to its wilder west side dunes, Mt. Baldhead climbs rewarded by overviews, and Oval Beach opening publicly on Lake Michigan.
The Petersons rebuilt the hand-cranked vessel, attached to an underwater chain, into the white-latticed steel “Diane,” name of R.J.’s wife, which still offers low-cost passage. Crew let guests crank the steel-cogged wheel themselves. Why shouldn’t some gripe about scheduling inconveniences? Where did those kids go? Don’t they know the Diane is supposed to keep posted hours?
• Saving the S.S. Keewatin was R.E. and R.J.’s most colossal stunt, some argue. Built 1907 in Scotland and billed as “Sister Ship of the S.S. Titanic,” the 336’, 7”-inch long steamer was purchased by the Canadian Pacific Railway to carry freight and passengers between Great Lakes ports. First CPR had to get her here. The Kee- plied the north Atlantic waters west through the St. Lawrence Seaway, saltwater then becoming fresh, was cut in half then restored to pass through locks, and till 1965 ferried freight and passengers from Port McNicoll, Ont., near Toronto, across the upper Great Lakes west.
Next year the Petersons saved the newly-decommissioned old girl from the scrapyard and hauled her here to set up as a maritime museum you could board and explore from a Red Dock ramp. There she stayed 45 years, a 3-story Douglas structure with no ordinance invented yet to through unending clarification thwart her.
Tours showed below deck a maze of heavy pipes linking 4 coal-fired Quadruple Expansion Scotch boilers, long since cooled. Crew who fit bent and wedged themselves between them; you had to too. Full-power the 386-ton Kee-, when loaded, fired to near 30 knots full-speed.
Not all 86 members fit that, so were assigned to use talents elsewhere, not excluding promotion to lower officers. This was manpower distribution captains did not need an agency to teach them. They had done it too to progress.
Or start your tour from the top. The captain’s bridge had a big wheel and smaller gages, high above the water, though back a bit from the bow and below where steeplejacks scaled three smokestacks plus more tiptop spars and rigging. Still, with those structures and quarters behind, it was an imposing command position.
Below lay the ballroom where Eric Conroy, he recalled as a lad 50 years ago, he learned to serve tables in the Kee-’s final transport years. This was more than menial work; it was entertainment for guests watching teens gain agility, strength and confidence while balancing towering trays with entrees on China plates under domes you would whisk off artfully, allowing steam to rise just so between diners’ nostrils, all the while hoping mess hall fools from whom you’d retrieved these victuals smothered heating flames in time.
Timing was all, recalled Conroy, as you balanced stacks on round trays interspersed with bottles and flutes of bubbly, wave-weaving polished hardwood floor reflecting your performance and guests’ reactions while rocking under your sharp-black shoes.
The ship had 108 state rooms, 54 portside, 54 starboard, with berths for 288 passengers. Each boasted a porthole through which you could peek. A gardened and carpeted Edwardian wooden stair centered rooms and led forward grandly to the ballroom.
So Conroy reminisced for this writer over cold beers at the Cove Bar not far from the Kee- in 2011. With R.J.’s concurrence he planned to move here back to Port McNicoll, Ont., where he recalled crews coming back telling many stories. The bar also boasted affordable ‘dogs with garnishments and a pool table. Balls clacked as we knocked back another round.
People complained the Kee- blocked the water. Jack Sheridan, George Sheridan’s 10-year-older-than-Steve grandson, described R.E. Peterson as “Type A. R.J. (then still living) is Type A squared.”
Prurience amused them. When they came upon local opinion shoals, “Pete would laugh and say ‘As long as they spell my name right,” recalled Steve Sheridan. Red tape, they’d cut loose curses and look to make more pins fall.
In his late teens R.J. studied engineering at Purdue University, 80 knots southeast of Gary near the Wabash River, and played big-band clarinet — “Not quite like Benny Goodman,” he conceded. Still, the time’s music stuck.
Damato grew up a Catholic schoolmaster’s son, his dad a Chicago trophy-winning track coach. As a young man he took to water, swimming for Division 1 St. Bonaventure University, founded by Franciscans in upstate New York hills in 1858. There “Big Cat” Bob Lanier — slick for 6’11,” 250 — had ruled Bonnie basketball lanes from 1967 to ‘70 and lingered like a happy hangover. Tony probed music and travel, often to his father’s dismay, with similar avidity.
Sharer and Stanton five years ago co-opened Retro Boats at 730 Water St., downtown Saugatuck, between where the Star of Saugatuck touring paddleboat is berthed south and Willow Park north. The Saugatuck Township Fire District keeps a rescue craft between.
Retro Boats swiftly added light drinks and food to John’s fleet of 1950’s-style small power boats, chromed, finned, reconfigured with electric. Guests could pilot these purring, smoke-free gondolas in small fleets with family and friends port to port locally, then reconnoiter to refresh themselves, still under summer sunshine.
Next door, Sharer/Stanton worked with the Saugatuck-Douglas History Center to restore an 1860s-built fishing shanty from the long-defunct Fishtown settlement up in the western hills. New Star of Saugatuck owner Sean Steele had salvaged the structure, whose base was rotting from record-high lake levels then, and stored it on his former Bloomin’ on Blue Star nursery land till hauling the shack to its new 730 Water berth next door and east. It now houses FishLads, a hybrid historic display and restaurant.
They could not miss befriending R.J., like R.E. gregarious and glad to treat select guests to his boathouse museum. It sat under his ex-Ox-Bow art school Edwardian brick house on the river, behind wrought-iron gates, where he and Diane made quarters.
We accessed it by steel-gated walk to a porch/terrace/bridge decked by bright-colored blooms in season, from which R.J. paused at the building threshold. “Wait,” he’d say, steal inside to turn on his neon jukebox playing ‘40s favorites. “OK,” he would lead theatrically through a old nautical quirks and treasures into a God-knows-how-heavy steel bank vault he kept open too for the curious. Through its man-high porthole door Peterson kept whatever keepsakes struck his mind.
Still, he was a curst old cuss. Among his half-hatched ideas like spawn was consolidating Saugatuck, Douglas and Saugatuck Township governments. “Federalist eh?” you could tease him. “A single, ever-bigger government so torn it can’t fuse without cutting inside deals so it could get out of private money’s way? Is forcing factions where none need exist somehow better?
“Could it be worse?” he’d asking, R.J. knowing politics as only R.J. could. “Who’s deluding who?”
When lawyer/venture capitalist Rick Snyder, then 42 with a vacation home on Gun Lake 40 miles east of Douglas, sought the state Republican governor’s nomination in 2010, R.J. hosted the man whose slogans were “One Tough Nerd” and “Relentless Positive Energy” at marina and sent friends 8×10” glossies of the two together.
When Snyder’s two 4-year terms ended, muddied by a 2014 Flint Water crisis whose victims and hart are still-unstaked, quite resolving, R.J. — now an honorary appointee to the Michigan Water Ways Commission — had a state pulpit and regarding his friend was quieter,
That Peterson. Mixed up in some scandal, always.
You felt confident, mostly, with him at the helm or wheel, just as Douglas didn’t. Mine too was shaken on our next caper:
to dislodge the Reiss, a 1913-built, 99-ton steel tugboat he’d had towed here in 1969. For 45 years he had anchored her out on water to serve as picturesque seagulls’ roost. Now, like the just-gone Kee-, the smaller but still single screw-driven sister, was silted in badly too.
“Ever been on the Reiss?” R.J. asked. “I’ll take you there on my River Queen.” He love those old flat-bottomed steel water taxis he and R.E. started rolling out in 1954.
I scrambled with camera bag onto the tug, listing as Tower Marine associates pumped out hundreds of Kal Lake gallons from the hold below, dodged poop-crusted wires and rigging, tried to gather sea legs and bang: R.J. was ramming the Reiss’s bow with his Queen, trying to dislodge her from her rut. I clung to a rusted guy, thinking nothing more beguiling for a photog than going to see.
When he was 91 R.J. invited me to join him climbing the 302 Mt. Baldhead steps to the base of the town-topping radar dome he said he’d saved long ago. He wanted to show me how the park’s restrooms, or heads, lapsed but remember too while ascending. At 13-step landings I’d pretend to shoot photos while resting my bad right ankle; R.J. churned on, chatting with out-of-town woman climbers, pausing to point back at the harbor and tell them sea stories:
“The Douglas big marina with hundreds of white boats and the Red Dock? Helped build and run them. Saugatuck Yacht Sales left at our feet? My home, boat house, Peterson’s Mill, Mildred E. Peterson Preserve? The chain ferry ‘Diane’ I designed and built, the …”
“Who’s this? He’s amazing,” one woman told me sotto voice.
“It’s in books,” I said. “May be more to write.”
To be continued