Town History

History of the Town of Grafton


On the sandy, windswept Lake Michigan shore only twenty minutes from Milwaukee’s northern limits lies a ghost town.  Today, few physical remnants are apparent, but the history of Ulao is poignant, rich, varied, and more than a little amazing.  One amazing aspect of this once thriving community, so close to Milwaukee, is the seeming lack of interest in or knowledge of its past.  Of the ghost towns in Wisconsin, few, if any, have a more dramatic location.

The truly economic part of the Village lay at the base of a high bluff on the sandy shore of Lake Michigan. This was Port Ulao.

Above the beach is a steep, two-hundred-foot raving riddle bluff.  At the top of this almost perpendicular bluff lies a plateau so flat it seems to have been laid out with the aid of a carpenter’s level.  It was here the village of Ulao was born and blossomed.  In 1847, James T. Gifford left Elgin, Illinois, for this area.  While not much is known of Gifford’s background, he evidently was a man of wealth who had state.  An old account says he possessed a “keen eye for the main enhance.” In any event, in that year, he moved from Illinois to the wild Lake Michigan shore where he purchased a considerable amount of land.  He bought property not only along the water, but also on a bluff, high above the lake itself.  The heavily forested countryside was just beginning to be settled by newly arrived farmers.  And at this time, wood-burning steamers started to compete with sailing ships on the Great Lakes.  Gifford had a plan and he implemented it immediately upon his arrival in Wisconsin.  With hired help he built a wooden pier which extended one thousand feet into the cold water of the lake.  He then constructed a wooden, trough-shaped chute, which started at the top of the steep bluff and ended at the beach near the pier.  Gifford’s plan was to buy wood from the farmers, who were clearing the countryside and glad for a chance to sell it.  He took this wood, cut it to proper lengths, and used the chute to transport it.  His customers were the wood-burning steamers, which plied the Great Lakes.

Gifford’s basic business acumen plus the timing of the project brought immediate success to his venture.

Harbor developments on the Wisconsin shore of Lake Michigan, did not begin until the late 1850’s. During the late 1840’s and early 50’s, even at Milwaukee, if getting fuel was the sole purpose for a stop, most captains of larger vessels avoided winding up the river with its sandbar at the entrance and opted for Port Ulao.  The amount of fuel the steamers burned was enormous.  A large side-wheeler on a single voyage from Buffalo to Chicago consumed 500 cords of wood, the product of ten acres of heavily timbered land.  Gifford soon built a warehouse and a sawmill.

In 1847, he prevailed upon the Wisconsin Territorial Legislature in Madison to grant a charter for a plank or macadam road starting at Ulao and proceeding westward through Grafton, Cedarburg, Hartford and on to the Wisconsin River.  The charter was granted; he formed a corporation, sold stock and became the corporation’s first president.  Three miles of roadway were constructed from Ulao west.  Gifford again applied his genius by having his suggestion implemented in constructing the roadbed.  Felled trees were converted into charcoal and mixed with burned clay, and true to his prediction the new surfacing through his unique process was very successful.  His road was the first turnpike in Wisconsin and is today County Highway Q/ State Highway 60.  Gifford was Ulao’s founding father and its patriarch for three years.

In 1850, for reason unknown, he sold his interests to a Great Lakes captain, John Randolf Howe.  Several friends and relatives joined Howe at Ulao, one of who was his sister Jane and her family.  It is here that a rather sinister thread connects Ulao with history. While living in New York State, Jane Gifford married Luther Guiteau.  In 1836 they became early settlers in Freeport, Illinois. At Captain Gifford’s insistence in 1850, they moved to Ulao where Guiteau became a prominent member of the Village.  Accompanying the Guiteau’s was their seven years old son Charles. By all accounts, he was extremely high strung, excitable boy. For five years, he was a pupil at the little Ulao school. Later in life, he was described as an “evangelist, insurance salesman, writer, orator, and swindler.”  Mrs. Guiteau died in 1855 and is buried in Ulao.  The following year the family moved back to Freeport.  As the son, Charles, grew older, he drifted from place to place but seemingly always with fanatic purpose.  Finally, Charles Guiteau left for the East, where he unsuccessfully sought several government positions.  He continually and consistently pestered Congressmen, and in 1880 badgered the Secretary of State, James Blaine, under the newly elected President James Garfield, for the post of Ambassador to Austria.

Guiteau eventually became such a nuisance that he was barred from the White House.  In Washington, D.C. in July of 1880, he bought a revolver for $15.  One morning later that month, forty-four-year-old Charles Guiteau, who had spent five years of his childhood at Ulao, went to the Washington railroad station.  President Garfield was leaving for Massachusetts to attend the twenty-fifth reunion of his college class at Williams.  On the station platform, the distraught Guiteau shot and killed Garfield.

It was during the Civil War that the pier at Port Ulao became a place of excitement.  On the morning of November 10, 1862, troubles quickly mounted at the larger town of Port Washington, five miles north of Ulao. A Mr. William A. Pors was at the center of the trouble, as the county’s Draft Commissioner.  He was to oversee the drafting of the county’s men for service in the Civil War.  As soon as he had set up shop in the courthouse that morning, a group of angry, anti-draft men dragged him to the door of the building and threw him down the steps.  By this time a large mob had gathered in the street and Pors raced for the cellar of the Post Office, where he was able to find safety.  Unable to get hold of the draft commissioner the mob, some of whom were drunk and getting drunker, destroyed the draft rolls and then proceeded to Pors’ house to demolish his furniture.  In a matter of hours, the Governor in Madison was informed of the riot.  He telegraphed Colonel Lewis, who was temporarily encamped at Milwaukee with his Twenty-eighth Wisconsin volunteer infantry.  Lewis immediately embarked with eight companies by boat for Port Ulao.  The soldiers disembarked at the Port Ulao pier and rapidly covered the remaining five miles to Port Washington.  Justice moved quickly, and eighty-one rioters were put under arrest, ending the draft resistance in Ozaukee County.

Some of the last residents of Port Ulao were a handful of Mormons, who in 1856 were driven from their settlement on Beaver Island in northern Lake Michigan.  This little group settled on a stretch of beach just north of the pier.  But they, too, after a few years, left the area.

After the Civil War, the wood on the plateau was depleted, and the activity at the port below gradually diminished.  What once had been a thriving Village became an area of large farms and an empty beach.

Today this area is known as the Town of Grafton.