Once upon a Riverwest crime wave

In the 1850s, a collection of shanties occupied the banks of the Milwaukee River at North Avenue, the inhabitants of which were victims of a series of almost magical thefts. Today, trees have replaced houses and a grocery store occupies the railroad yard that employed the community's residents, but the "red shirt mystery" endures. Photo by Carl Swanson

In the 1850s, a collection of shanties occupied the banks of the Milwaukee River at North Avenue, the inhabitants of which were victims of a series of almost magical thefts. Today, trees have replaced houses and a grocery store occupies the railroad yard that employed the community’s residents, but the “red shirt mystery” endures. Photo by Carl Swanson

Before there was a Pick ’n’  Save at the corner of Humboldt and North in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood there was a railroad yard. Older residents of Riverwest will remember mostly weed-overgrown tracks and the occasional idling diesel locomotive but long ago this was once a point of intense local pride. This was the site, in the mid-1850s, of the main repair shop and roundhouse for Byron Kilbourn’s La Crosse & Milwaukee RR, the second-oldest railroad in Wisconsin.

And here a baffling series of crimes took place. In time a solution was found but the perpetrators were never brought to justice.

I’ll set out the facts of the case momentarily, but you can read the entire story in a remarkable book published in 1901 called Early Milwaukee: Papers from the Archives of the Old Settler’ Club of Milwaukee, 1830-1890.

By “Old Settlers,” the club meant exactly that: its membership included the original residents of the city who gathered to share memories of Milwaukee’s very earliest days. In 1899, member Jeremiah Quin, a former railroad blacksmith, stepped to the podium and held his audience spellbound with an account he entitled “An Up-River Mystery.”

In the autumn of 1858, an occurrence just above the dam caused much annoyance to the squatter settlers of that region. The La Crosse shops were running in full blast. The long brick blacksmith shop on the crest of the river bank was full of vigorous, brawny men, many of whom built small houses, known as shanties, along the river banks.

A 1910 map of the area is overlaid on a modern satellite image and shows the location of the remains of the railroad shop complex. Photo illustration by Carl Swanson

A 1910 map of the area is overlaid on a modern satellite image. The railroad shop buildings are shown in light red. Photo illustration by Carl Swanson

In those days the blacksmiths had a custom of wearing red flannel shirts to work. They were highly skilled men and they considered their red shirts a badge of office. This attitude even extended to blacksmiths’ wives, who, Mr. Quin said, could be identified on wash days by their high heads and their proud bearing as they laid red shirts out to dry on the sunny grassy banks of the river, “for in those days,” Mr. Quin added, “clotheslines were unknown, or deemed effeminate luxury.”

All at once a dark cloud came over the sylvan spot. A red shirt began to disappear here and there from the variegated lawn, and no one could discover how…. Day by day, the crop of red shirts grew less and less, and what deepened the mystery, was, that while there were garments of various hues, of gauzy textures and costlier finish, lying on the daisy-covered sward, only the red flannel shirts were ever taken.

The blacksmith families advanced many ideas of how and why the thefts were happening, and organized themselves into “vigilance committees,” Riverwest’s very first neighborhood watch. Still the red shirts continued to vanish and the mystery only deepened.

One young woman swore she had watched the drying shirts intently. Seeing no one either up or down the river bank, she turned to glance at the bluff behind her. Turning back, just seconds later, she discovered one of the shirts had vanished.

It is said the community was close-knit and exceptionally kind to each other. I have no doubt they listened politely to the woman’s story. Later, however, and among themselves, Mr. Quin said the neighbors concluded she had fallen asleep and would not admit it.

One day, an unfortunate rag picker happened to walk through the little community and was immediately surrounded and ordered to unload his huge bag. The contents were carefully examined but nothing in the way of red flannel was found and the man, badly frightened and rather puzzled, sent on his way.

In the end, there was only one thing to do, and the blacksmiths did it. Red was abandoned and from that day blue flannel shirts were their uniform “and peace and happiness reigned on the river’s sylvan banks once more.”

I’ve paraphrased much of this story because Mr. Quin’s style is quite flowery, as expected from public speakers in those days, but we should allow him the conclusion in his own words:

The long winter passed, and when the warm sun of Spring melted the crested snows of the stream, the mystery was solved. Well up towards Humboldt [he refers to the old river town of Humboldt, near today’s Capitol Drive bridge] a colony of muskrats made settlement that Winter. Their vast network of nests looked as usual, until the warm Spring rays all at once metamorphosed the scene, and strange to relate, in a single day the colony assumed the appearance of a miniature English military camp, and a most picturesque sight it was, too; every nest was crowned – capped with a red flannel shirt.Carl_sig

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