In Milwaukee History

Britain's Queen Elizabeth sailed the Great Lakes on this vessel in 1959. (PHOTO: Great Lakes Marine Collection/MPL & WMHS)

The time Queen Elizabeth sailed past Milwaukee

Sixty years ago this week – on July 7, 1959 – Her Majesty's Yacht Britannia, escorted by six destroyers, sailed past Milwaukee. On board were Queen Elizabeth II and her husband, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. Neither made an appearance during the approximately half-hour Britannia was within site of the city. The royal armada was making its way from Chicago to Sault Ste. Marie.

June 18, 1959, now entering the seventh year of her reign, 33-year-old Queen Elizabeth II embarked on a 45-day, 15,000-mile tour. She would visit all of the Canadian provinces and cruise the Great Lakes.

At Montreal on June 26, President Eisenhower had joined the Queen aboard Britannia for the official opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway. The recently completed waterway allowed Britannia access to the Great Lakes.

After a busy day in Chicago on July 6, the royal couple returned to Britannia, which departed just past midnight. She would deviate from a typical course up Lake Michigan to give Milwaukeeans a brief glimpse of British royalty. On the morning of July 7, the royal yacht and her escorts sailed past the city about a mile and three quarters from shore as they headed for Sault Ste. Marie.

Despite Coast Guard efforts to keep them away, a number of small boats went out for a closer look. Milwaukee's fireboat Deluge offered a nautical salute, launching 52 tons of water per minute through 18 water canons. "The water jets, which soared 185 feet into the air, framed the royal yacht and her six-destroyer escort in a regal rainbow."

Carrying a delegation of city leaders and news reporters, the city's harbor launch, Harbor Escort, sailed out to greet the royal visitors. But neither the Queen nor her husband came out to acknowledge the welcoming committee. Harbor Escort sailed alongside the royal yacht until she was off St. Mary's Hospital. It then blew a salute and headed back to the harbor.

Launched in 1953 and commissioned a year later, Britannia was 412 feet long and 55 feet wide. Retired in 1997, her final mission was bringing home the last British governor of Hong Kong following its handover to the People's Republic of China.

Now berthed in Edinburgh, Scotland, Britannia still draws a crowd.

(NOTE: Now 93, Queen Elizabeth II is the longest-reigning monarch in British history. She was crowned at London's Westminster Abbey on June 2, 1953.)

For more images, check out the Wisconsin Marine Historical Society Facebook page.

Read more about the WMHS here.


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