If you were to pick the one engineering project most instrumental in shaping today’s Milwaukee River, it would have to be the North Avenue dam, which was itself the result of a monumental miscalculation by one of Milwaukee’s founders.
In the mid-1830s, Byron Kilbourn envisioned a canal linking Milwaukee with the Rock River in central Wisconsin. Yeah, it sounds like crazy talk today but back then it was a reasonable plan. After all, the 363-mile Erie Canal had just been completed and was making its supporters rich beyond the dreams of avarice. By comparison Kilbourn’s much less-ambitious project looked easy enough to build and a certain money-maker because, in those pre-railroad days, a canal was the only way to cheaply move large amounts of cargo over land.
And Kilbourn seemed like the right guy for the job. A successful surveyor and land developer (pretty much everything west of the river in today’s downtown Milwaukee was Kilbourn’s), he had worked on canal projects in Ohio and was the son-in-law of John Fitch who operated the first steamboat service in the United States.
With plenty of local enthusiasm behind him, Kilbourn formed the Milwaukee & Rock River Canal Co., started digging along what is today Commerce Street, and, in 1843, threw a wooden dam across the Milwaukee River south of North Avenue to ensure a steady, controllable flow of water for his canal. The work went quite well and the first mile of canal was completed from just east of Humboldt to Cherry Street (near today’s Schlitz Park complex) … and then the whole project went kablooey.
Kilbourn traded some of the shares in his canal for promissory notes, many of which were held by his friends and associates in the Cincinnati area. The territorial government of Wisconsin, which guaranteed the bonds through the sale of 500,000 acres of government lands, eyed this cozy financial arrangement with increasing suspicion. Using a clause in the contract stating that bonds could only be sold for cash, the bonds were repudiated, killing the canal on the spot. (Although the ensuing lawsuits dragged on, as lawsuits do, until 1885.)
Kilbourn’s ditch, now renamed “The Water Power,” lingered for several years, providing water power to a number of businesses along the western bank of the Milwaukee River, including flour mills – massive wood structures housing as many as 35 sets of millstones. The North Avenue dam lasted far longer. Rebuilt over the years, it was finally removed in 1997, restoring natural water levels along much of the urban river.
The long-lived dam effectively divided the Milwaukee into a lower and an upper river. The lower river became heavily industrialized, its banks replaced with retaining walls and its bottom dredged to handle large ships. Above the dam, the wide impoundment attracted recreational users with swimming schools on both banks, including the Rohn Swimming School, established in 1856 (and shown in the early 1900s postcard at the top of this post). In its first 40 years of operation, Rohn taught an estimated 6,000 residents. Whittaker’s and Bechstein’s swimming schools were also nearby. Rohn and Bechstein continued in business until the 1930s.
Nearby, the adventurous could take a seat on flat bottom boats, hurtle down greased wooden slides built on the steep river bluff between Whittaker and Bechstein swimming schools and go skipping across the water, an amusement ride called “shoot the chute.” While the boats were winched back up to the top of the runways, passengers climbed stairs, at the top of which was a stand selling refreshments.
There were also boat rental companies above the dam, rowing clubs, swimming and ice skating at Gordon and Riverside parks, and, further upstream, a beer garden near what is today’s Kern Park in Riverwest and an amusement park in Shorewood (today’s Hubbard Park) .
And the upper river was home to at least six ice houses, but that’s a story for another time.
It wasn’t in Kilbourn’s plans but his dam became an informal dividing line between the working world of the lower river and the tree-lined and peaceful upper river and this sense of the upper river as special and set apart has outlived the dam itself.