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…)

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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…)

Steamboat days on the Milwaukee River

The Whittaker was one of several steam-powered excursion boats plying the upper Milwaukee River in the late 1800s. Carl A. Swanson collection

In 1835, Byron Kilbourn, the developer of the west side of the city, built a dam across the Milwaukee River south of North Avenue. A log structure filled with earth and gravel, the dam was 480 feet long and 18 feet tall. It was designed to ensure a steady flow of water for a canal.

The canal was supposed to connect Milwaukee with the Mississippi River but financial troubles halted construction after a single mile had been dug. But Kilbourn’s dam changed the river – and the city – in ways he could not have imagined. (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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Grenades and underwear

A woman mills munitions primers at the Eddystone Ammunitions Plant, Eddystone, Pennsylvania, during World War I. Women did similar work at the Briggs Loading Co.in Milwaukee. Library of Congress LC-DIG-ppmsca-40775

A woman mills munitions primers at the Eddystone Ammunitions Plant, Eddystone, Pennsylvania, during World War I. Women did similar work at the Briggs Loading Co.in Milwaukee. Library of Congress LC-DIG-ppmsca-40775

A few months after the United States entered the First World War Milwaukee investors established a company to make munitions, built a factory along the Milwaukee River in Glendale, and hired an all-female workforce.

Many Milwaukeeans fought the Kaiser. The women of Briggs Loading Co. did so in their underpants. (more…)

The sweet smell of disaster

In 1919, with Prohibition about to end beer production, the Uhlien family, owners of the Joseph Schlitz Brewing Co., expanded into candy production, building a vast factory complex on North Port Washington Road in Glendale. It proved a rare, and expensive, failure for the powerful Milwaukee family. Carl A. Swanson collection

In 1919, with Prohibition about to end beer production, the owners of the Jos. Schlitz Brewing Co., turned their attention to candy, building a vast complex on Port Washington Road in Glendale. Carl A. Swanson collection

From its massive purpose-built factory to the staggering amount of money lost in its eight-year history, everything about Milwaukee′s Eline’s Chocolate and Cocoa Co. was outsized.

The venture was launched by the Uihlein family, owners of Jos. Schlitz Brewing Co. It’s not easy to go from Beer Baron to Count Chocolate but they certainly gave it a good try. The family hired experts, built a sprawling state-of-the-art factory on Port Washington Road in Glendale, hired an army of workers, and launched an ambitious marketing campaign. 

Eight years later it was gone. Today only a few buildings remain of the Eline complex – monuments to a mistake. (more…)

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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