The Great Courthouse Trouser disaster

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The first courthouse was built in 1836. Additional offices and a jail are to the right. This is the site of Cathedral Park today. Carl Swanson collection

Enjoy this sample chapter from the new book, Lost Milwaukee, by Milwaukee Notebook blogger Carl Swanson

Early settler James S. Buck wrote the four-volume Pioneer History of Milwaukee, which one writer described as “a fascinating hodgepodge of largely undigested facts, gossip, puffs and salty observations.” Buck included events both great and small in the city’s formative years. For example, many historians relate the construction of Milwaukee’s first courthouse in what is today Cathedral Square, but only Buck gave us “The Courthouse Trouser Disaster.”

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Book contains favorite posts from Milwaukee Notebook

Nearly 100 attended the book launch event for “Lost Milwaukee” April 24th at Milwaukee’s Boswell Book Company. Photo by John Swanson

We did it! Thanks to The History Press, the all-time best posts from Milwaukee Notebook – rewritten and expanded – are now collected in the new book Lost Milwaukee. The 42 essays and more than 70 images cover a broad range of topics, including:

  • In the waning days of World War II, a duck named Gertie built a nest in downtown Milwaukee and became a national sensation.
  • A popular bike path was once the route of one of the world’s fastest steam-powered passenger trains.
  • The last days of the Schlitz brewing empire in Milwaukee.
  • Women employed in a World War I munitions factory worked in their bloomers because the machinery made long dresses hazardous.
  • Today’s Estabrook Park was once a massive quarry and the home of the world’s largest producer of natural cement.
  • A nearly forgotten Milwaukee River park was a popular beer garden.
  • One-hundred years ago, excursion steamboats ran on the upper Milwaukee River.
  • For decades the rickety-looking Wells Street viaduct provided a thrilling ride for trolley passengers.
  • In 1859, Abraham Lincoln’s visit to Milwaukee included fiery rhetoric – and an encounter with a sideshow strongman.
  • The story of the lost canal under a busy city street.

From beer barons to chocolate makers, from a courthouse statue locals said resembled a drunken dancing girl to an ice cream run that led to the founding of Evinrude outboard engines, Lost Milwaukee is a fascinating glimpse into the city’s past. Click here for more information on this new book!

[From the Acknowledgments section of Lost Milwaukee] “Lastly, I wish to thank those who have followed my blog and shared their love for Milwaukee. This book would not have been possible without their support, comments and suggestions.”

The digital age (almost) invented in Riverwest

This factory, the former home of Globe-Union, at 900 E. Keefe Ave., was once the employer of electronics genus Jack Kilby, and may even have started him on a path that eventually changed the world. Carl A. Swanson photo

The device upon which you are reading this, the network you used to access it, along with every modern computer, smartphone, GPS device, in fact, the entire digital age was born in 1958 when Jack Kilby, an electronics engineer with Texas Instruments, designed the first integrated circuit built on a piece of semiconductor material. As Thomas Fehring, author of the new book, The Magnificent Machines of Milwaukee and the engineers who created them, explains, this world-changing invention may have its roots in a company located in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood. 

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Milwaukee’s Bridge War

The Wisconsin Avenue bridge across the Milwaukee River as it appeared in the 1870s. Note how the East and West side streets do not line up. Carl A. Swanson collection

In 1845, an argument over who should pay for civic improvements escalated to the point that a cannon was wheeled out to threaten the west side of town with artillery fire. The dispute ended in the wrecking of most of the bridges in town.

They called it the Bridge War. (more…)

East Side tunnel to nowhere

Built more than a century ago, this stone tunnel portal in the east bluff of the Milwaukee River is near the intersection of North Cambridge Avenue and Hampshire Street. Partly filled in and heavily vandalized, it remains impressive — and mysterious. Carl A. Swanson photo

There is a mystery in Cambridge Woods Park on the east bank of the Milwaukee River — an ancient tunnel made from carefully cut and fitted stone blocks and large enough to drive a truck through.

From its portal in a bluff at the foot of Hampshire Street, the tunnel extends eastward under the Oak Leaf Trail only to end abruptly at a modern concrete wall about 60 feet inside the entrance.

Who built it? And for what purpose?  (more…)

Death in the Third Ward

On September 7, 1861, a mob overwhelmed police, broke into the Milwaukee city jail, and dragged an African-American prisoner from his cell. The prisoner, Marshal Clark, was beaten and then lynched – his body left hanging from a pile-driving machine on Buffalo Street just east of Water Street.

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The man who dreamed of locks

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This Master Lock no. 3 padlock is made from multiple steel plates stacked and riveted together under enormous pressure, just as Harry Soref designed in 1921. Carl A. Swanson photo

Harry Soref, the founder, general manager, and chief designer of The Master Lock Company, was a most unlikely industrial tycoon. Small, slight, and soft-spoken, he preferred working in an unadorned cubbyhole of an office in the huge factory he built. His working day started at 5 a.m. and often continued until 9 or 10 at night, six days a week.

“There is no Sunday, no Monday, no Tuesday for me,” he told the Milwaukee Journal in 1940. “The days are too short and nights too long.”

His factory employed more than 600 people but Soref refused to install time clocks or set production quotas. One could spot newly hired employees when they referred to the company’s founder as “Mr. Soref.” The workers who had been there awhile called the boss by his first name.

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Milwaukee’s airship port

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Was the spire atop the Wisconsin Tower, 606 W. Wisconsin Ave., intended for mooring giant passenger airships like the Hindenburg? When this building was built in 1920, that wasn’t a far-fetched idea. Carl A. Swanson photo

According to legend, the owners of the 22-story Wisconsin Tower (originally the Mariner Tower), built 88 years ago at 606 W. Wisconsin Ave., included something unusual in its design – a rooftop mooring mast for dirigible airships. In drawing up plans in the late 1920s builders pinned their hopes on the latest development in transportation – airships. With a dirigible mooring mast on the roof, 280 feet above the street it was just a matter of time before Zeppelins linked Milwaukee, via this very building, to the major cities of the world.

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Election year madness

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There has never been a presidential election like this: The Republican Party is split into bickering factions and unable to unite behind its candidate, while the Democratic Party is in disarray following a bitter nomination process. Adding to the turmoil, candidates from two small parties are attracting unprecedented support.

Now one of those upstart candidates is coming to Milwaukee – where an assassin will fire a bullet into his chest.

It is Oct. 14, 1912, and Theodore Roosevelt is scheduled to speak at the Milwaukee Auditorium. Covering a city block, the auditorium holds 9,000. An overflow crowd is gathering, eager to hear the popular former president make his case as the candidate of the new “Bull Moose” party. John Flammang Schrank, a New York saloonkeeper, is also in Milwaukee. He had followed Roosevelt from city-to-city for nearly a month. There is a gun in his pocket. (more…)

Mae West’s Milwaukee secret

Film actress Mae West believed in leaving little to the imagination, but something happened to her in Milwaukee that she very much wanted to remain a secret.

Actress Mae West believed in leaving little to the imagination, but early in her career, something happened in Milwaukee she very much wanted to remain secret.

Mae West, called the “epitome of playfully vulgar sex” by the New York Times became a household name and amassed a vast fortune by portraying confident and outrageously outspoken characters on stage and in films. But, early in her career, something happened she wanted to forever remain secret.

In 1911, at the age of 17, she had gotten married in Milwaukee.

As her fame grew, West maintained she had always been single, famously saying, “Marriage is a great institution, but I’m not ready for an institution yet.” In fact, West not only had been secretly married to Vaudeville song-and-dance man Frank Wallace, their union lasted 31 years.

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