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.

A postcard view of the riverside pavilion at Blatz Park, as it appeared in the early 1900s. Carl Swanson collection

A postcard view of the riverside pavilion at Blatz Park, as it appeared in the early 1900s. Carl Swanson collection

The Pleasant Valley Park beer garden opened in 1870, one of many in Milwaukee at the time. The city was home to a thriving population of German immigrants and local breweries adopted the old county idea of the beer garden and elevated it beyond anything ever seen in Germany. Michael Reilly’s history of the Schlitz Brewing Co., describes the era:

“The beer garden was an important gathering place for family groups, politicians, artists, and celebrities as early as the late 1840’s. The most pretentious beer gardens were extensive groves, selected for natural beauty and often enhanced by landscaping. Some featured exotic plants, artificial ponds, fountains, and rustic stairways descending into picturesque ravines. Conveniently placed benches and tables served by nimble footed waiters invited rest, quiet conversation and leisurely imbibing.”

A steamboat heads for Blatz Park on the west bank of the Milwaukee River in this postcard view dating to around 1900. Steamboats operated between the park and North Avenue. The fare was 15 cents. Beer, however, was just a nickel. Carl Swanon collection

A steamboat heads for Blatz Park on the west bank of the Milwaukee River in this postcard view dating to around 1900. Steamboats operated between the park and North Avenue. The fare was 15 cents. Beer, however, was just a nickel. Carl Swanon collection

Getting to Blatz Park was half the fun. There was a boat livery operated by Captain Phillip H. O’Conner under the east end of the North Avenue bridge where one could rent a rowboat for 25 cents for a half-day. Or, for 15 cents, take a seat on one of O’Conner’s three shallow-draft steam launches, which operated between the bridge and the beer garden. The steamers – the Niswassa, the L. O’Conner, and the Gen. Sheridan – could carry up to 75 passengers and a round trip (including stops at Blatz Park and the Wonderland amusement park in Shorewood), took 40 minutes.

The Blatz Park river landing. Note the gas lights lining the landing stage and the tidy park lands under the shade trees. Courtesy Milwaukee County Historical Society

The Blatz Park river landing. Note the gas lights lining the landing stage and the tidy park lands under the shade trees. Courtesy Milwaukee County Historical Society

The captain was a well-known figure in Milwaukee. He was born in Ireland, and moved with his parents to Milwaukee’s East Side when he was 5. By age 15, he was building wooden rowboats, which led to a job on the Great Lakes as a ship’s carpenter. Wishing to settle down, O’Conner establishing his boat livery, built a small fleet of wooden rowboats, and hoped to scratch out a living by renting them. Business was slow at first, but in time more and more people were drawn to the river and O’Conner had to build more and more rowboats to keep up with the demand.

With his business prospering, O’Conner expanded by building and operating his fleet of steamboats. He even built a barge to pull up the river and serve as a floating dance floor and bandstand. On occasion, O’Conner’s boats pulled flotillas of canoes tied together.Later, the steam launches were augmented by electric boats powered by storage batteries.
In September 1894, the captain died. His obituary said his illness was triggered by a nervous condition brought on by the stress from operating his business and by overwork. He was 47 years old.
O’Conner played a major role in making the upper river accessible and the beauty of the winding river kept them coming back. The Milwaukee Journal, in its June 12th, 1952 edition, noted, “For our good burghers … it was just like the Danube – beer, sandwiches, and concerts – and like the Danube the Milwaukee river wasn’t blue either. But the foliage along both the steep river banks was beautiful.”
The gardens faded around World War I. Tastes in entertainment had changed. Prohibition, followed by the rise of the automobile, put the final nails in the coffin. But in its day, Blatz Park was not to be missed. An early guidebook recommended it as part of a suggested one-day itinerary for sightseers to Milwaukee.
The Blatz Park pavilion was handy for river traffic. The boat tied at the base of the flagpole may be a steam-powered launch. This postcard view was taken around 1900. Collection of Carl Swanson

The Blatz Park pavilion was handy for river traffic. The boat tied at the base of the flagpole may be a steam-powered launch. Closer to the camera is a barge that could be towed by a steamer when passenger counts required. This postcard view was taken around 1900. Collection of Carl Swanson

“Should time permit, cross the loveliest country roads to Pleasant Valley or Blatz Park across the River and take a supper there al fresco; and if you don’t vote that they can cook a game supper there to a turn, and understand all the etc’s, and that Milwaukee is a jolly place to pass one day in. it must be the fault of your liver.

“From Pleasant Valley you can, if you desire, float homeward in the moonlight down the river by boat to North Ave. bridge, where your carriage will await you, and bring you back to the city in the evening.” – From Caspar’s Guide to the City of Milwaukee, published 1904.

The Blatz estate continued to own the property until 1928. In announcing the sale of the land to the city, the June 8, 1928 edition of the Milwaukee Journal noted the beer garden was even then a distant memory and that a swimming school had occupied the park’s 790-foot river footage in more recent years. The newspaper article also contained this evocative quote from the real estate broker handling the sale:

Few traces remain of the famous early beer garden.

Few traces remain of the famous early beer garden. Photo by Carl Swanson

“Few of the younger generation in the city realize that there is a spot in the heart of the city that has such beauty,” estate broker Anthony Grueninger told the paper. “However, all old-time Milwaukeeans will remember the days when Pleasant Valley was the recreation place for thousands of people.

“They will remember how father gathered the family on a Sunday, went to Whittaker’s at the North Avenue bridge and either rented a rowboat or boarded the small river steamer that made the trip to this beautiful spot.

“While father sat in the famous old pavilion as he quaffed a stein of foaming brew and listened to one of the many singing societies which usually gathered there, mother and the children sat or played about under the beautiful trees of the park.”

The sale of the land was, according to newspaper accounts of the time, intended to facilitate construction of a planned riverfront drive. The roadway was never built and Pleasant Valley Park eventually became part of Milwaukee County’s chain of riverfront parks, but was otherwise left alone to slowly revert to nature.

“All that remains is a hazy recollection of green and white cleanliness, of content and a sense of time standing still on a Sunday afternoon.” – Milwaukee Sentinel, April 3, 1955.

In 2012, a beer garden, the first in 100 years, opened further up river in Estabrook Park. The public-private partnership was an immediate success.

But Pleasant Valley Park will continue to slumber. Its time in the spotlight is over.Carl_sig

milwaukee_abandoned_beer_garden

A concrete curb marks what had been the park’s main entrance road, leading from East Concordia Avenue down the bluff to the park, tucked away in a ravine on the west bank of the Milwaukee River. Photo by Carl Swanson

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