Canoodling canoeists, riverbank lotharios, and skinny-dippers here, there, and everywhere. By the 1920s it’s no wonder local newspapers had taken to calling the Milwaukee River between North Avenue and Capitol Drive “Petters’ Paradise.” With public complaints soaring in the summer of 1921, Milwaukee Police decided it was time to put a damper on the watery lasciviousness.
The department acquired a secondhand but rather sleek little motor boat, equipped it with a powerful spotlight, and enough patrolmen to man the craft with two officers daily from 8 a.m. to midnight. The boat set to work with then-Chief of Police Jacob Laubenheimer promising local newspapers that immoral conditions would be eliminated within a week.
The police didn’t bother to name the craft, but young couples whose romantic interludes were interrupted began calling it as “the killjoy.” In a rare example of official good humor, Milwaukee police embraced the name. River patrol boats would wear out and be replaced over the decades, but each new craft was invariably named Killjoy.
The Killjoy did much more than enforce morality. Then-Chief Laubenheimer told the Milwaukee Journal in July 1931, “We had a rowdy element to contend with on the river. There were several tough north side gangs who used to make life miserable for respectable citizens by stealing, fighting, destroying property and gambling. Women and children were not safe along the river. When the first police motorboat was launched this trouble was greatly reduced and in later years was completely ended.”
Laubenheimer was quite a forward-thinking character and it’s possible the boat patrol was his own idea. During his 15 years as chief, his department hired its first African-American and first women police officers, equipped patrol cars with radios, and established one of the first police academies in the nation.
The boat proved a little troublesome in its first year and had to be repaired and overhauled. But in July 1922, the Milwaukee Journal announced its return with a memorable headline, “Canoe Spooning Off: Police Boat Fixed.”
The officers manning the Killjoy were trained in life saving and first aid. Daytime duties included watching for swimmers in distress. During its four decades of operation, the patrol saved countless lives. Patrolman Erwin Riemer recalled one rescue in a July 12, 1931 interview with the Milwaukee Journal:
“One day in summer day in 1926, a young couple attempted to swim across the river at the foot of Meinecke Avenue. They were three-quarters of the way across when both became exhausted and started floundering. I was working alone that day and had gone by just before they got in trouble.
“I happened to look back and saw the boy, who was about 17, and the girl, about the same age, waving their hands in the air and swallowing water. I turned the boat around, pulled alongside, managed to drag both into the boat, and took them ashore.
“After 15 minutes of artificial respiration both recovered. Neither one of them even said so much as ‘thank you!’ ”
On another occasion, a man attempted suicide by jumping from the Locust Street bridge. He landed feet first in a shallow spot and found himself up to his waist in mud and up to his neck in water. Trapped but unharmed and having second thoughts about ending it all, he was bellowing for help when the Killjoy arrived.
At night the boat cruised along slowly and quietly, on the lookout for trouble and occasionally living up to its name by turning its spotlight on drifting canoes and furtive activities on the river banks. For example, in the early morning hours one Sunday night in June 1925, six people found themselves charged with disorderly conduct.
The Milwaukee Journal reported the incident in a June 15th, 1925 article headlined, “Killjoy Tuned Up, Interrupts Three Friendly Couples.”
“The youths arrested are members of the Belle Isle Canoe Club. They danced until midnight with their sweethearts, then went out in canoes despite the pouring rain. Irvin Karnatz, commander of the river patrol boat Killjoy, followed the three canoes and saw petting parties which he believed to be disorderly. He gave chase and ordered the canoes to pull to the curb – pardon, bank.”
The patrol was also credited for reducing the frequency of nude swimming, a fact surprising to those of us who thought our grandparents and great-grandparents were more sedate in their youth, although in the summer of 1931 police did receive numerous reports from angry Riverwest residents concerning repeated instances of public nudity on the Shorewood side.
The patrol operated out of a concrete boat house south of the Locust Street bridge, next to the Gordon Park bathhouse, and officers assigned to the Killjoy knew many of the people frequenting the river by sight. This made them very adept at spotting strangers who were up to no good. And when trouble was reported, the Killjoy would be on the scene in a flash – the boat was fairly fast and it’s patrol area was small, a bit over two miles of river north of the North Avenue dam.
The first Killjoy was destroyed in a fire in 1926, but a new boat was ready for service when the river thawed in spring 1927. In 1936, the police requested a replacement boat and specified one capable of 32 mph. The city purchasing board, being a bit of a killjoy itself, felt the wake from such a fast-moving boat would endanger canoeists and ordered a slightly more sedate craft.
The river patrol was mothballed in 1939 but regular patrols resumed in 1944 after a spate of drownings on the upper river. Patrolmen at the time were instructed to warn swimmers under the age of 18 to be extra cautious. Unaccompanied small children swimming in the river were to be immediately marched home to their parents.
By 1948, things on the upper river were getting rough. Police were frequently targeted by rock-throwing youths from the riverbank. Matters escalated to the point where numerous 55-gallon drums were stolen, filled with rocks, and tipped into the river in the hope the Killjoy would strike the submerged drums and sink. (Incidentally, this boat, being radio-equipped, was now also known by its call sign “Squad 55.”) The boat never did sink, but it usually broke a few propellers each summer on the underwater obstructions.
The last Killjoy, an 18-foot Chris-Craft, was placed in service in 1956 and patrolled into the 1960s. In May 1961, for instance, the Killjoy was assigned to protect two Milwaukee-Downer College rowing crews (or, as the Milwaukee Journal described the female athletes at the time, “Two boats carrying 16 girls dressed in abbreviated costumes”), who reported coming under BB gun fire from the east bank of the river south of Hubbard Park. After a two-day stakeout of the riverbank, police apprehended two boys who admitted firing the shots.
The “bane of river petting parties,” as a local newspaper called it, the Killjoy was the forerunner of today’s Milwaukee Police Department Marine Operations Unit, which generally patrols the city’s lakefront and harbor areas.
According to a police spokesman, none of the department’s present boats are named but perhaps it’s appropriate the Killjoy designation faded from use with the end of 40 years of service on the upper river.