Hubbard Park on the Milwaukee River in Shorewood is a quiet place with a long and surprising history. It was once a farm that became a summer resort. The sleepy resort (activities included fishing, strolling the shady paths, and drinking allegedly health-giving spring water) evolved into a sprawling, boisterous amusement park complete with thrill rides and – I don’t wish to shock you with this – dancing girls.
If you thought a huge and raucous amusement park would be frowned upon in Shorewood, you would be right. It was eventually shut down, chopped up into parcels and sold for development, leaving only Hubbard Park, a narrow strip of land, 1,400 feet long between the Milwaukee River and the former railroad right-of-way now used by the Oak Leaf Recreational Trail.
The story starts in the 1870s with a man named Frederick Lueddemann, who owned a 33-acre farm atop the high bluffs overlooking the Milwaukee River south of today’s Capitol Drive. In 1872, he opened Lueddemann’s-on-the-River as a privately owned picnic ground. Coincidentally that same year a Milwaukee inventor named Otto Zwietusch was awarded the first of what would eventually be more than 50 patents, mostly having to do with the process of adding carbonation to beverages and machinery for bottling soda and beer. He also owned a company that was one of the largest producers of bottled water.
In 1876, Zwietusch purchased Lueddemann’s-on-the-River for $9,000 and changed its name to Mineral Spring Park after the natural spring located in a ravine just north of today’s Hubbard Park Lodge. Zwietusch promptly dubbed the water source Apollo Spring and proceeded to bottle it and sell it throughout the upper Midwest. He built a 40 x 80-foot two-story hotel complete with parlors, a billiard room, and a restaurant on the site of the Luddemann home. He also created scenic walkways with numerous benches and tables and planted nearly 500 trees. It is possible some of the older trees in today’s Hubbard Park were planted by Zwietusch.
The popular bottled water promoted the resort, the resort promoted the sale of the mineral water, and by June 1896, the Milwaukee Sentinel was able to report:
The most popular summer resort in the Milwaukee area is Mineral Spring Park, located just north of the city on Oakland Avenue. The 35-acre park extends for half a mile along the Milwaukee River and features bathing and boating facilities, a hotel large enough to accommodate 50 guests, a dancing pavilion and swings, hammocks, and picnic tables. The Oakland Avenue streetcar runs directly to the park and will be extended into it during the summer.
By then Otto Zwietusch had exited the beverage business to focus his energies on making and selling bottling equipment. Mineral Springs had also changed. The Northwestern Union Railway, building north from its lake front depot, cut through the property, filling a ravine in the process. To maintain access to the river, the railroad built a pair of cut-stone tunnel-shaped underpasses, one for a creek and the other for a road.
The creek is gone but the tunnels remain a familiar feature of today’s Hubbard Park.
Around 1900, Zwietusch sold Mineral Springs. The new owners changed the name to Coney Island signaling its transition from resort to amusement park, which was built between the railroad right-of-way and Oakland Avenue. Patrons arrived by streetcar or by steam-powered launches operating between North Avenue and the park, with a stop along the way at the Blatz Park beer garden across the river. (Also in 1900, nearby residents went to the polls and voted to break off from the Town of Milwaukee and establish the Village of East Milwaukee, later renamed Shorewood.)
Coney Island was a bit of a flop. It closed after just three seasons. In 1905, the park reopened under a new name, Wonderland, and added a number of exciting rides including a Ferris wheel and an illuminated “Electrical Tower” covered with hundreds of light bulbs, from which daredevils occasionally jumped, landing on a trampoline below.
By any standard, the park was extremely successful. Visitors arrived by streetcar, which dropped them off at the Oakland Avenue and Menlo Boulevard gate. After paying a modest admission (10 cents for an adult ticket, children 5 cents), they were entertained by a whole host of rides, including a giant water slide, and a roller coaster. The attractions drew thousands of visitors every year.
In 1909, the park changed its name to Ravenna Park but continued operations much as before. During the season, local newspapers routinely printed highlights of events at the park, such as this example from 1911:
The largest attraction that can be secured for Ravenna Park are being staged for free features. The big resort stands well to become a popular place for large picnics … Arnoldo’s trained leopards, of which there are six that perform in a large cage at one time, is the big free attraction offered this and next week. Arnoldo entering the cage with six leopards is quite a feat, as he has nothing but a whip to defend himself, and the snarling and growling that is heard during the performance would lead one to believe that he might be attacked at any time. – The Milwaukee Journal July 22, 1911
And the same paper, in its June 28, 1914, edition, reported, “The management of Ravenna Park has spared no expense this year to please the public. Many new and novel attractions have been secured, including the new vaudeville show composed of a bevy of pretty girls, who dance and sing with grace; the oriental girls, the pit show, stereoptic lecture explaining and showing the recent Titanic and Empress of Ireland disasters. Langheinrich’s band furnishes the music.”
But the good times were already drawing to an end. In 1917, the park closed after the Village of Shorewood refused to renew its $1,500 annual operating license. The 33 acres of land were split into three sections. The northern section was subdivided into residential parcels served by extensions of Morris Boulevard, East Newton Avenue, and East Menlo Avenue. The streetcar company purchased the southern parcel of land, roughly present-day River Park, and built a transformer building, car barn, and offices.
The small remainder of the land, a six-acre, 1,400-foot-long strip of river bluff squeezed between the railroad tracks and Milwaukee River, was also subdivided and offered as residential lots, but eventually sold as a single parcel to form today’s Hubbard Park. The deep ravine that drained through the culvert was filled to extend Morris Boulevard through to the river.
There is a remarkable footnote to this story. In the late 1890s, when Otto Zwietusch still owned the land between the river and Oakland Avenue, The Milwaukee Journal, in its April 15, 1896, edition, reported the owners of Schlitz Brewing Company and Pabst Brewing Company each contributed $2,500 to buy land for Milwaukee-Downer College. According to the paper, “The money was contributed with a view of purchasing Mineral Spring Park as the permanent site for the college.” Although the owners of the park and other nearby properties also “pledged to subscribe liberally,” it seems backers were unable to raise Zwietusch’s $65,000 asking price. Milwaukee-Downer College looked elsewhere for a building site. Today the college is known as the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Special thanks to John Swanson for tracking down the historic photos in this post.