The strange case of Anne Manthei

1923 photograph of long-term fever sufferer Anne Manthie of Milwaukee, depicted smiling slightly, with her head bandaged, and propped up in bed.
Anne Manthei of Milwaukee, shown in a 1923 photograph, suffered an illness that baffled medical science. Collection of Carl Swanson

In 1912, when Anne Manthei turned twenty, she was struck down by illness. Nine surgical procedures followed. Several of the operations were major, including the removal of a kidney. For the next nine years she was constantly under medical care and unable to work. In 1921, her condition worsened dramatically. Her remaining kidney became infected and her temperature soared to 110 degrees.

A fever of 106 degrees or higher is a medical emergency. Left untreated, death is likely and often within hours.

But Anne beat the odds. In October 1922, when her story was featured in the Milwaukee Journal, she had been living with a 110-degree fever for an astounding sixteen months.

The newspaper reported, “Skeptical physicians, refusing to believe it is possible for a human being to live more than a few hours with a fever so violent, have visited her at her home. They have applied every test, using their own thermometers, tested instruments, and invariably they leave mystified by the strange case.”

Medical thermometers of the day had a maximum reading of 110 degrees. In Anne’s case, the mercury frequently passed the 110 mark and continued rising until stopped by the end of the instrument. The doctors who examined her, including one from the Mayo Clinic, concluded Anne’s actual temperature usually hovered around 112 degrees and often reached 114.

Confined to her bed, suffering constant pain and burning fever, Anne was unable to take a sip of water or a bite of solid food for more than a year. She was kept alive by intravenous fluids and liquid nutrients administered by her physician, Dr. William G. Weidemann, who visited at least twice daily and sometimes as many as four times a day for a total of 1,700 house calls in sixteen months.

Wrapped in icepacks, she talked “freely and cheerfully” with the Journal reporter. There was one thing she wanted to see in the article.

“If you print details of my case in the papers,” she said, “I want everyone to know what that doctor has done for me.”

“He has for sixteen months kept me alive.”

Other than her moment in the limelight, little is known of Anne Manthei. Perhaps her health improved a little for she lived another 22 years. The woman who, in the midst of extreme suffering, was able to smile and carry on a pleasant conversation with a visitor died in 1944 at the age of 52.


New book arrives January 17th!

Exciting news! My latest book, “Historic Milwaukee Crimes” will be out January 17th! It contains 26 dramatic true stories of murder and villainy from the city’s past, including the Whitefish Bay developer who killed his wife, severed her head, and burned it in a furnace; a wronged woman who murdered her lover on a busy downtown street and was found innocent by a sympathetic jury; and another woman who lethally poisoned her family and laughed about it in the press. From a robbery in which the bandits got away by stealing a streetcar to the attempted assassination of President Theodore Roosevelt, it’s all in “Historic Milwaukee Crimes.” The 160-page book is published by The History Press and is now available for pre-order. Preorder your copy today! (#commission earned)

All in a Day’s Work

Early 1900s advertisement showing an illustration of a woman wearing a corset and headlined, "Maternity Waist."
In 1904, the H&W Company of Newark, N.J. advertised a maternity corset as a “boon to the expectant mother.”

Two newspaper articles from the December 1, 1922 edition of the Milwaukee Journal, highlight the varied nature of police work in the Roaring ’20s.
One details the search for a woman who fled a private hospital shortly after giving birth to a daughter and was wanted on a charge of child abandonment. The only clue police had was the hospital staff’s recollection that she “required an extraordinarily large corset.”
Detectives proceeded to visit every corset manufacturer in the city, compiled a list of stores receiving unusually large garments, and systematically tracked down each purchaser until they found their suspect, 22-year-old Jeannette Wilson. She was busted, one might say.
Police made another arrest that day and this one promised to resolve a long-standing public nuisance. For several weeks a man had watched police direct traffic. When officers went off duty, he would step into the street and take their place directing traffic. Unfortunately, the civilian helper was terrible at it and quickly reduced the flow of traffic to a snarled mess.
But he was also “keen of eye and fleet of foot.” As he directed traffic he maintained a sharp lookout and would flee at the approach of a uniformed officer.
Eugene O’Gorman, a plainclothes detective, was put on the case. O’Gorman positioned himself near the North Shore electric railroad terminal near Sixth Street and Sycamore Street downtown. The traffic policeman stationed here was under orders to leave the intersection each time a train arrived and go into the depot. Sure enough, when the office went into the depot the self-appointed traffic cop took his place.
“O’Gorman watched the traffic tie itself up into a tangle under [the man’s] direction, and then stepped out to him,” the newspaper reported. “Majestically waved back an approaching automobile and motioned the detective to cross the street. ‘Pedestrians are first, motorists are second,’ the volunteer said to O’Gorman smilingly.”
Reaching the middle of the intersection, the detective seized the man, a thirty-year-old with the memorable name of King Bacon, and marched him away. When a patrol wagon arrived King was heard to say, “I’m a traffic cop. I don’t belong on the wagon.”
A judge ordered King held for observation for a week and asked that the attending psychiatrist report to the court “any suggestions he may form as to the best way to use the traffic expert’s abilities.”

“Trail of Corset Leads to Arrest,” Milwaukee Journal, December 1, 1922: page 2.
“Police Cook Plot to Strip Bacon; Raw Failure as Copper,” Milwaukee Journal, December 1, 1922: page 2.

Interested in learning more about Milwaukee’s fascinating (and occasionally odd) history? Check out my book. (#commissionearned)

A bridge by any other name …

A photograph showing the north end of the Pleasant Valley box culvert.
The site of a famous Milwaukee River beer garden at the turn of the last century, the only structure in Pleasant Valley Park today resembles a pedestrian bridge, but it actually has a much different function. Carl Swanson photo.

Pleasant Valley Park, located on the west bank of the Milwaukee River south of Kern Park, contains a mystery. The only manmade structure in the undeveloped and heavily overgrown county park is a 250-foot-long pedestrian bridge emerging from a sloping hill, crossing a valley, and ending at the opposite wall of the ravine. No developed trails lead to it, although walkers have worn meandering paths to and from the structure. 

It’s solidly built and impressively large – and it also seemingly serves no purpose. Why is it there?

I was recently contacted by WUWM Milwaukee Public Radio’s Bubbler Talk program, which was seeking the answer to a listener’s question, “Why is there a large bridge in the middle of the woods by the river in Riverwest that goes nowhere? Is it a remnant of Blatz Park?”

Blatz Park, originally called Pleasant Valley when it opened in 1870, was a popular beer garden at the turn of the last century. It featured a restaurant pavilion, live music, and extensive and beautifully maintained grounds. It was served by shallow-draft steamboats operating from a dock near the North Avenue bridge. A roundtrip was 15 cents and included stops at Wonderland Amusement Park in Shorewood and the beer garden in Pleasant Valley.

The park closed after World War I, a victim of changing tastes in entertainment and the rise of the private automobile. A swimming school briefly took its place until it, too, closed. In the 1920s, the land was sold to Milwaukee County by the Blatz family to facilitate the construction of a planned roadway along the river. The road was never built, and the land was handed over to the Milwaukee County Parks System.

Read about Pleasant Valley’s beer garden days.

Apart from a few concrete footings near the river, nothing remains of Blatz Park today and the mysterious structure is of far newer construction.

A photograph showing a side view of the concrete box culvert in Pleasant Valley Park, Milwaukee
Why was this bridge deep in the woods south of Kern Park? The answer is simple. It’s not a bridge at all. Carl Swanson photo

That gets us back to the original question. What the heck is this thing in the woods? Its thick, square cross-section suggests an enclosed aqueduct – a bridge for carrying water across a valley.

At first, I thought it might be a water main. After all, the structure is just north of the Riverside Pumping Station, which distributes fresh water from the treatment plant on the lake throughout this section of the city.

Read about the historic Riverside Pumping Station.

As I tried to get usable photos of this bridge/aqueduct/box culvert/alien artifact/whatever – no easy task given the thick woods – I noticed the covers of nearby manholes were lettered “sewer”.

I contacted the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) and asked if the bridge belonged to them. Keith Kalinger, Senior Project Manager, replied, “It’s actually a 60-inch sanitary sewer that transports flow south to the Jones Island Water Reclamation Facility. The current aqueduct was constructed in 1999 to replace an existing one whose plans date from 1918.”

He added, “It’s not even our only aqueduct. There is another one in Estabrook Park along the walking trail that starts near Capitol Drive.”

A photo showing the cast-in concrete arch detail in the Pleasant Valley sewer culvert.
Built in 1999, the box culvert was designed with tapered concrete legs that flow into cast-in arch shapes – graceful touches for a sewer line in a seldom-visited part of Pleasant Valley Park. Carl Swanson photo

Rather than a bridge to nowhere, the aqueduct is a sensible response to challenging topography. It’s more cost-effective to run the line across an elevated structure than bury the pipe deep enough to go under the ravine in Pleasant Valley Park. Applied Technologies, the designer of the 1999 project, and Lunda Construction, its builder, gave some thought to its appearance. Tapered supporting legs flow into arches cast into the concrete surface. They also added stainless steel safety railings along the top to create an inviting walkway. The whole thing cost a half-million dollars in 1999. Pretty snazzy sewer!

We don’t often think of sewers. If they come to our notice at all it’s because something horrible is happening. Hidden and largely ignored, they are absolutely vital to the city’s wellbeing. Consider this glimpse of life before sewers from Orlando Wright, the city’s Commissioner of Health, who reported in 1879:

Sometimes, in a dry season, the sewage of Milwaukee nearly equals the quantity of water flowing in the rivers. At least 100 tons of human and animal excreta, to say nothing of other putrescible organic matters, are emptied into these sluggish streams every day. Their waters are dark with filth, and yet the question is asked whether they are unhealthy. If a thick solution of ordure is unhealthy, the Milwaukee and Menomonee rivers are certainly so.

First Annual Report of the Commission of Health of Milwaukee, January 1879

The sewer mains running along both banks of the Milwaukee River, intercepting wastewater and diverting it for treatment, were built in response to these intolerable conditions and are a major reason the river today is in a far cleaner and healthier state than it was in Milwaukee’s formative years.

Thanks to Kathryn M. Schmitt, MMSD contract compliance administrator, for her assistance with this article.

A panoramic view of the aqueduct from October 2000 shows tidy landscaping and small trees.
The Pleasant Valley aqueduct, as it appeared in October 2000 shortly after its completion. Photo courtesy MMSD

Interested in learning more about Milwaukee’s fascinating (and occasionally odd) history? Check out my book. (Paid link)

The forgotten Milwaukee River park

Pleasant Valley Park on the west bank of the Milwaukee River was once one of the city's most popular beer gardens. Owned by the Blatz brewery and visited by thousands, it featured elaborate landscaping, a restuarant, bandshell, pavilion, steamboat dock, and even a few cottages. In 2014, little remains to remind visitors of its glory days a century ago. Photo by Carl Swanson

Pleasant Valley Park on the west bank of the Milwaukee River was once one of the city’s most popular beer gardens. Owned by the Blatz brewery and visited by thousands, it featured elaborate landscaping, a restuarant, bandshell, pavilion, steamboat dock, and even a few cottages. Little remains to remind visitors of its glory days a century ago. Photo by Carl Swanson

Pleasant Valley Park, at the foot of East Concordia Avenue on the Milwaukee River, is a peaceful place. The band packed up and left a century ago, about the time the steamboats stopped calling at the park’s dock. A little later, the pavilion, pier, cottages, and bandshell were torn down and the rubble removed. Officially this is a Milwaukee County Park but you wouldn’t know it by looking at it. There are no signs, no parking area, no picnic benches or ball fields, nothing at all to suggest it had ever been anything other than a ravine filled with downed trees and garlic mustard.

But once this was one of Milwaukee’s best-known beer gardens:

“Blatz Park (“Pleasant Valley” before 1892) swarmed with picnickers in those days. Troops of large families from St. Casimir’s Parish, a mile south, regularly followed a makeshift marching band up Humboldt Avenue to the park, each family pulling a coaster wagon containing a picnic lunch. Steam-powered boats, sailing from a dock just above the North Avenue dam, pulled up periodically at the pier and discharged crowds of passengers. The park had a bandshell and later a restaurant. There were also cottages, often rented in the summer, by one account, to actors from a theatre downtown.” – From Riverwest: A Community History, by Tom Tolan, copyright 2003, Past Press, Milwaukee, WI.


Striking sailors manned a floating picket line

A nighttime photo showing a Canadian ship loading grain at the COFCO International grain elevator in Milwaukee
The Canadian-owned Federal Danube loads grain at Milwaukee’s Kinnickinnic River elevator in November 2020. Sixty years ago, the arrival of a Canadian grain ship stirred labor troubles. Carl Swanson photo

The border between the United States and Canada runs through five of the Great Lakes. For lake freighters, it is the most invisible of international frontiers thanks to the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909, in which the two nations declared their shared lakes “forever … free and open” to commerce and navigation.

Canadian vessels, some unloading road salt at Jones Island, others loading grain at the 100-year-old Kinnikinnic River elevator are common sights at the Port of Milwaukee. But in May 1962, the Canadian-owned R. Bruce Angus was greeted by a small rowboat bearing four men waving picket signs and getting thoroughly wet and chilled in the process. The floating picket line, one of the strikers told the Milwaukee Journal, was a first for Milwaukee although it had been done in other places.

“In warmer weather,” he added.

The dispute involved Upper Lakes Shipping Ltd., the owner of the R. Bruce Angus, and the Seafarers’ International Union (SIU). From the early 1950s until April 1962, the SIU had provided crews to Upper Lakes. After the company and the SIU failed to come to terms on a new collective bargaining agreement, Upper Lakes signed with the SIU’s rival, the Canadian Maritime Union (CMU). 

The 12-foot aluminum picket boat was an unimpressive sight as it motored in circles around the massive freighter but it was effective. When the captain of the Angus called for assistance in docking his vessel, the Great Lakes Towing Company tug Connecticut responded – only to immediately turn around and return to its mooring after sighting the little boat and its sign-waving occupants. The tugboat’s crew was represented by the SIU and refused to cross their union’s “picket line.” 

Masters of Great Lakes vessels have a reputation for skillful ship handling and the captain of the Angus proved no exception. Shrugging off the loss of the tug, he turned his 620-foot-long steamship in the 800-foot-wide mooring basin and neatly docked alongside the Continental Grain Elevator.

The SIU members then tied up their own little boat and went in search of coffee and sandwiches. Round one of the dispute was over.

Relations between unions have their own arcane formalities. The SIU set up a token picket line on the grain elevator’s access road. The elevator’s workers were represented by Local 8 of the Brewery Workers. Since SIU’s dispute was only with the Angus and its owners and not with Continental Grain, the Brewery Workers had no problem with crossing the SIU’s picket line. However, members of Local 817 of the International Longshoremen’s Association, normally employed to work in the holds distributing the grain as it poured into a vessel (a process called “grain trimming”), refused to cross the SIU picket line because they would have to work aboard the Angus.

This touched on a particularly sore point. SIU work agreements prohibited ship crews it represented from working as grain trimmers because it took work away from Longshoremen. The crew of the Angus, with the shipping company’s new agreement with the Canadian Maritime Union, had no such prohibition. When the Brewery Workers lowered the grain spouts, the 20 crew members of the Canadian vessel were in the holds trimming the cargo. A few hours later, laden with 550,000 bushels of corn, the R. Bruce Angus steamed off to Three Rivers, Quebec.

The drama escalated a few weeks later when the Victorious, owned by the same Canadian firm, arrived in town to load corn at Continental Grain. When the picket line boat failed to appear, the tug Connecticut assisted the Victorious into port. This time, elevator employees decided they would honor the picket line. A standoff ensued. After a few days, the Victorious had to move away from the elevator to allow a vessel owned by the Swedish American Line to load.

Upper Lakes Shipping took the matter to court, where it argued that the SIU was illegally interfering with the company’s activities and with the lawful labor representative of its sailors, the CMU. Circuit Judge Robert M. Curley agreed and issued a temporary restraining order barring the SIU from picketing. Taking a lesson from similar troubles in other Great Lakes cities, the judge worded the injunction in such a way that it applied to the SIU or any other union acting on the SIU’s behalf.

Matters took an ugly turn in August 1962, when the Canadian ship James Norris arrived to load corn. Forty Longshoremen promptly walked off the job. A short time later, alerted that a group of men was approaching the elevator, Continental Grain’s superintendent went to see what they wanted and was severely beaten. Four men, all Longshoremen, were arrested and three were subsequently convicted of assault.

The dispute surfaced again in 1963, when Longshoremen staged a motorized parade up and down the dock, disrupting the loading of the Upper Lakes vessel Red Wing. Judge Curley promptly had John Brzek, secretary-treasurer of Longshoremen’s local 815 hauled in for violation of the restraining order. 

His attorney told the Milwaukee Journal Brzek led the “peaceful caravan” in an effort to head off violence. The newspaper noted that tensions were running high because CMU-represented sailors were continuing to do grain trimming.

The judge fined Brzek a modest amount to cover court costs in exchange for his promise he would do all he could to prevent his members from interfering with Upper Lakes ships.

On and off labor trouble lingered throughout the Great Lakes. Violent incidents in Canada led to that nation’s government assuming trusteeship of all its maritime unions.

In November 1963, the loading of two Canadian vessels in Milwaukee, the Prindoc and the Saskadoc, was halted by picketing. A spokesman for the law firm representing the vessels’ owner, N.M. Paterson & Sons Ltd. of Fort William, Ontario, expressed dismay over the picketing, noting that Paterson sailors were represented by the Canadian SIU. An SIU spokesman explained the union would now picket any ship with a Canadian flag to protest that nation’s oversight of maritime unions. 

Thus a dispute that started with a floating picket line reached a point where a maritime union picketed ships represented by itself.

Recent photo of Algoma Innovator using a self-unloading boom to unload salt.
The Canadian Algoma Innovator uses its self-unloading boom to unload its cargo of road salt at Jones Island in December 2020. In 2011, Upper Lakes Shipping Ltd., which had been target of a 1960s labor dispute in Milwaukee and other lake ports, sold its fleet of ships to Algoma Central Marine. Carl Swanson photo

Interested in learning more about Milwaukee’s fascinating (and occasionally odd) history? Check out my book. (Paid link)

Riverwest factory made the world a more colorful place

A view of the former Cottrell & Sons, Claybourn Division printing press manufacturing plant at 3701 North Humboldt Boulevard in Milwaukee, WI
The former Cottrell & Sons, Claybourn Division printing press manufacturing plant at 3701 North Humboldt Boulevard is vacant today but it has a proud heritage. Carl Swanson photo

A color printing press is a miraculous machine. As big as a house (and the newest ones are much bigger than that), packed with rollers and gears turning at blinding speed, producing tens of thousands of printed sheets per hour, they are so precisely made that a single part misaligned by a few thousandths of an inch would ruin the output.

One of the early pioneers in color printing, Leslie Claybourn, built a factory in Riverwest in 1922 and his workers were soon turning out printing presses that were more innovative, massive, and precise than any before. His company attracted visitors from around the globe and even held the record for a time for the world’s largest color press.

Then, in 1957, it all came to an end. Other companies would occupy the 172,344-square-foot factory at 3701 North Humbolt Boulevard over the subsequent years.

Leslie Claybourn was born in Albert Lea, Minnesota, in 1884. He started an electroplating company and then a machine shop. Business being slow at times, he augmented his income by moonlighting as a professional wrestler. Known as Lex “The Terrible Swede” Claybourn, he was good enough to hold the lightweight championship at one point.

It is not known when he hung up his wrestling tights, but by 1914 he was working as a development engineer for a Cincinnati printing machinery company. In 1918, Claybourn became vice president and director of operations for the Menasha Printing & Carton Co. While there, he perfected a process for printing pictures on butter and ice cream cartons.

His patented techniques, involving both improved machinery and new ways of producing printing plates, attracted a great deal of industry attention. In 1921 he was able to organize the Claybourn Process Corporation and build a large factory on Humboldt near Keefe Avenue.

One of the company’s first customers was the Milwaukee Journal. Other newspapers followed, including The New York Times. The Philadelphia Inquirer, Cleveland Plain Dealer, and many more. By 1929, Conde Nast was printing Vogue on a Claybourn five-color press.

In a 1929 article, a national trade publication, The Pressmen’s Journal, wrote, “Mr. L.W. Claybourn is one of the outstanding geniuses of the printing industry of the world, and it has been said by many authorities in the printing and printing machinery fields that Mr. Claybourn is actually 25 years ahead of the industry.”

On the last day of 1930, Claybourn’s car was involved in a collision at the interaction of North Prospect and East Newton avenues. So violent was the impact that Claybourn’s car was thrown sideways into a unity pole, snapping it off at its base. He spent all of 1931 in a cast and never fully recovered from his injuries.

It would take more than that to sideline “The Terrible Swede.” In 1934, the Claybourn company made headlines when it unveiled a 72-ton five-color press able to print 4,000 sheets per hour while cutting set-up time in half. The gain in efficiency was startling. This high-speed full-color press could be up and running as quickly as a simple two-color press.

But in those dark years of the Great Depression excellence in design and manufacture might not be enough to save a company. In 1937, with the Milwaukee plant struggling to stay afloat, Connecticut-based C.B. Cottrell & Sons Company acquired the firm.

Claybourn stayed briefly to help with the transition, then moved on to work with many other printing firms. At the time of his death in 1956, he held more than 200 patents for printing innovations.

The Riverwest plant’s new owner, Cottrell & Sons, traced its roots as a machine builder all the way back to 1855. By the time of the Civil War, the firm was specializing in printing presses. The firm sent Donald Cottrell, grandson of the founder, to manage its newly acquired Milwaukee operation. A graduate of Harvard, he had served as captain of an infantry company in World War I. He also had a local connection—Charles Ilsley, chairman of the board of Marshall & Ilsley Bank, was a classmate of his at Harvard.

Cottrell would lead the company out of the Depression and through years of wartime production in World War II.

In 1943, the company plowed a 13,000-square-foot plot near the factory and its employees planted and tended a victory garden. The Milwaukee Journal reported that, among other things, the garden had 480 tomato plants, which produced far more than its employees could consume at home. A bushel basket of tomatoes was kept in the factory in late summer for snacking. Their agricultural efforts earned the company’s workers a trophy from the National Victory Garden Institute.

In 1953, Cottrell & Sons was itself taken over by the Harris-Seybold Co. and the Milwaukee plant had another owner. By 1955, the factory had 165 employees and was building rotary color presses that weighed 40 tons and measured 42 feet long.

Two years later, Harris-Seybold closed the Humboldt factory and a piece of Milwaukee’s industrial heritage died.

In 2015, the Wisconsin Historical Society sponsored a survey to find industrial properties that might be eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places. The report concluded the C.B. Cottrell & Sons, Claybourn Division factory is “significant as an example of an early-twentieth-century industrial complex with a consolidated plan. The first factory and warehouse were constructed in 1922, and the Classical Revival main office was constructed in 1927. In the 1950s and 1960s, the plant expanded at the rear; however, the complex retains the character-defining features of the form including the large expanses of original window sash, roof lighting, and a consolidated plan. The C.B. Cottrell & Sons buildings retain a high degree of integrity and are therefore potentially eligible.”

If a historical marker is erected, which seems unlikely, it might quote the founder, Leslie Claybourn, who told The Pressmen’s Journal in a 1929 interview, “Printing is a mechanical problem. Establish accuracy and precision into the locked-up form to be printed or moulded from, which is the very foundation of the printed job, and you will print that form correctly in spite of yourself.”

Maybe it could also mention the tomatoes.

Interested in learning more about Milwaukee’s fascinating (and occasionally odd) history? Check out my book. (Paid link)

Milwaukee’s Grand Plan

A horse cart is featured in this vintage postcard view of Milwaukee's original Grand Avenue viaduct
Horse-drawn carts like the one shown in this postcard view were common sights when the Grand Avenue viaduct was built in the early 1900s. Carl Swanson collection

Wisconsin was in a mood to dream big in the years following the end of the Civil War. One idea involved extending Grand Avenue (today’s Wisconsin Avenue) from the shore of Lake Michigan all the way to Madison—creating an 80-mile-long boulevard lined the entire distance, they were certain, by elegant mansions and places of worship.

Before anything like that could happen, a suitably impressive way had to be found to carry Grand Avenue across the broad Menomonee River valley. So, after years of indecision and political infighting, Milwaukee set to work on a massive viaduct. Its construction sparked lawsuits, took far longer than expected, and cost much more than estimated.

Pretty much every Milwaukee road project ever, in other words.

But the Grand Avenue viaduct was also a triumph. Upon its completion in 1911, it was immediately regarded as one of the world’s most notable structures.

An army of carpenters and laborers used 3 million board-feet of lumber to make the concrete forms for the viaduct’s eight massive arches.

The idea became a reality largely through the efforts of a single Milwaukee County supervisor, Samuel Bell. The owner of a Milwaukee insurance company, Bell had served in the Union Army in the Civil War. Elected to the county board, Bell was named to the board’s highways and bridges committee.

Bell stepped in after an attempt to fund a viaduct across the Menomonee Valley at the west end of Grand Avenue failed in 1896. At that time, much of the land at the west end of the bridge was owned by real estate companies and it was not clear how the project would benefit the public. The proposal went nowhere.

Bell revived the measure back in 1899, only to have supervisors balk at the viaduct’s estimated cost of up to $190,000 (the equivalent of $5.8 million today).

In 1900, Bell introduced—for the third time—the proposal. By now all the west end lots had been sold to private individuals and Bell was in an optimistic mood. He told the Milwaukee Journal, “If the assessors do their duty, the county will have a material increase of revenue from this source of taxation … there will almost be a new city out there.”

In a May 4, 1900 interview with the Journal, Bell said, “When the resolution came before the board in 1896, the law limited the power of the board to act in the matter to one year. The proceedings show that a resolution was introduced, but the county’s finances were in such a condition that there would be trouble in selling the bonds if the work was started. The matter was dropped, but in 1899 the legislature passed a law, chapter 310, which removed the time limit.”

He added, “This year (1900) it is before the board again. The land necessary to build the west end is assigned to the county. The members seem favorable to the proposition and it looks as if it would go through.”

In the same article, Bell noted the board was only on step one.

“What the board must do is this: First to decide that the building of the viaduct is to the best interests the county and that it should be built. A resolution to that effect is now before the board. Second, locate the viaduct. Third, to have a survey made of it. Fourth, secure the property by condemnation or purchase. Fifth, secure a profile plan and specifications for the work. Sixth, to advertise for bids and, seventh, to make the bond issue. All this has to be done by proper resolutions and it would take eight or nine meetings to get it though if a step were taken at each meeting.”

In a May 7, 1900 article headlined “Viaduct is Assured” the Journal reported Bell’s proposal had cleared the highways and bridges committee and would go before the full board where, the newspaper noted, no significant opposition was expected.

The next day Bell’s measure was blocked when a fellow supervisor introduced a resolution to take no action until the state legislature passed a law giving the county authority to “assess benefits and damages in the vicinity of the viaduct.”

Bell finally got the project off the ground in 1904 when county supervisors approved the project by a 26 to 12 vote. The proposal had been kicking around for eight years.

To find the best design for the proposed viaduct, the county sponsored a nationwide competition with a prize of $1,500 ($40,000 today). A New York engineer named Edwin Thacher was the winner for an art deco barrel-arch design based on concepts developed by Joseph Melan of Vienna. The Melan system relied on a core of steel I-beams shaped to form the arches and then encased in poured concrete.

In 1907, the county collected bids for the viaduct’s construction. A local firm, the Newton Engineering Co., was the low bidder at $372,000. To keep an eye on the project, the county hired Gustav Steinhagen, who, in 1892, had built the 2,085-foot-long Wells Street trolley viaduct, which crossed the Menomonee Valley a block north of the Grand Avenue viaduct site.

There was a local shortage of laborers at the time so Newton Engineering hired large numbers of African-Americans from Tennessee. The concrete was poured at night and these workers would tamp it down in unison, singing spirituals as they did so to keep their rhythm. This was something new for Milwaukeeans and they crowded around the bridge in the moonlight to listen.

“People would come from miles around,” Ralph Hayward, who worked on the viaduct, told the Milwaukee Journal in a 1950 interview. “All you could hear was the sound of singing.”

Behind the scenes, things were less harmonious. Just weeks after construction started, the contractor and Steinhagen were bickering. Steinhagen said the builders ignored his orders and had too few employees on the job while the Newton Company said Steinhagen was “arbitrary and unreasonable.”

After a year of this, the county had enough. The Newton contractors were dismissed and the company promptly filed a lawsuit against the county for unpaid work. A group of local builders banded together to form the National Engineering & Construction Co. and took over the project.

Three-hundred workers were soon hard at work turning 900 tons of steel and 55,000 barrels of cement into eight massive 145-foot-span arches, one 80-foot-arch, and one 60-foot arch together forming a graceful span 2,088 feet long, 80 feet high, and supporting a 67-foot-wide roadway.

Timber forms used to build the Grand Avenue viaduct
This timber ramp was used in the pouring of cement. Building the wood forms while keeping the railroad tracks beneath open was one of the most complex aspects of the project.

On October 24, 1910, the contractors turned the bridge over to the county for final finishing work, which included the roadway approaches at both ends of the new bridge. Then they too filed suit against the county for extra work authorized by Steinhagen.

The lawsuits dragged on, as they do, but in 1916 the court awarded the first contractor an additional $41,000 and the second contractor $67,743.

The final cost of the bridge totaled $614,475 ($14.4 million today), nearly double the original bid and three times higher than the $190,000 estimate that had so horrified the board in 1899.

To no one’s surprise, there were further delays. The county board even managed to put off casting a commemorative bronze tablet to be attached to the structure. The proposed tablet included Steinhagen’s name and the names of the members of the county board that had originally approved the project.

“Well, let’s see,” the Milwaukee Sentinel quoted one supervisor saying, “shouldn’t the names of the new board be on that tablet instead of the old?” Most of the committee, the Sentinel noted, believed he was right “especially those who were not members of the old board.” Supervisors decided to delay having the plaque made while they considered the question.

In an April 29, 1911 editorial note, the Milwaukee Sentinel acidly remarked, “Possibly the new Grand Avenue viaduct will be open to the public by the time it is necessary to build a new one.”

Milwaukee residents were also feeling impatient. On a fine Sunday in May 1911 hundreds of people descended on the viaduct, ignored warning signs and climbed fences in order to walk across the valley on the new bridge.

Finally, on July 4, 1911, the viaduct was declared open. Horses and buggies had been common when the project was first discussed but when it opened fifteen years later, automobiles by the hundreds crossed the new span.

Milwaukee residents could finally take stock of what had been accomplished and, possibly to their surprise, found they had created a landmark.

“The Grand Avenue viaduct is considered by foremost engineers to be the finest in America, both in construction and from an artistic standpoint,” the Sentinel noted. “The arches are the largest and longest of all bridges in America and only two bridges in Europe exceed the Milwaukee bridge in length of arch spans.”

Vintage postcard view of Milwaukee's original Grand Avenue viaduct
The concrete bridge included a scroll design balustrade and Art Deco streetlights. Two streetlights were located above each pier, with one above the arch’s crown. Carl Swanson collection

The cement contractor for the project, the Marquette Cement Manufacturing Company of LaSalle, Illinois proudly printed a booklet describing the viaduct as, “a feat of engineering that will not be eclipsed in either beauty or size for many years to come.”

A national trade magazine, Rock Products, printed a cover story in its April 22, 1911 issue, writing, “From all over the country expert engineers and builders were attracted to the sight of the great achievement to witness the building of the great structure and study the methods employed in its construction. This viaduct is by far the greatest concrete bridge in the world, its mighty arches towering high in the air and the giant supporting piers present a spectacle which has to be seen to be appreciated.”

The plots of land west of the viaduct quickly became a desirable residential area, which considerably bolstered the development of Wauwatosa. Supervisor Bell, who visited the viaduct site nearly every day during the years of its construction, had predicted the outcome and must have been pleased to see his persistence pay off.

In the end, the dreamed-of boulevard to Madison got no farther than the west side of the Menomonee Valley.

The arches of the present-day Wisconsin Avenue viaduct suggest the appearance of the original bridge
The present Wisconsin Avenue viaduct was built in 1993 to replace the original bridge. The modern bridge incorporates arches designed to recall the appearance of the earlier structure. Carl Swanson photo

Carl Swanson is the author of the book Lost Milwaukee from The History Press, available from book stores or online.

The long season of the Milwaukee Clipper

From 1941 to 1970, the Milwaukee Clipper linked Milwaukee and Muskegon, Michigan. The ship offered amenities including a live orchestra, a fine restaurant, and even a movie theatre. Carl Swanson collection

In the early 1900s three elegant sister ships sailed the Great Lakes, the Tionesta, the Juniata, and the Octorara. One of them, renamed the S.S. Milwaukee Clipper, would serve its namesake city from 1941 to 1970.

A lot can happen to a ship in nearly seven decades – and a lot did.


The Owls of Port Washington Road

This building housing Shiloh Tabernacle Church, 3436 N Port Washington Rd., recalls the glory days of Milwaukee’s fraternal orders. Carl Swanson photo

The sturdy brick building at 3436 N. Port Washington Rd. is the home of Shiloh Tabernacle Church, and has been for many years. But look closer. There are three owls carved above the entry.

This building has a secret past. (more…)