Estabrook Park, on the east bank of the Milwaukee River north of Capitol Drive, has an odd claim to fame. It rests on an unusual layer of pale gray Devonian limestone. A high-grade natural cement, this rock was extensively quarried a century ago. It forever altered the natural landscape on this stretch of the river.
The cement works were massive – producing 530 tons each day – but short-lived. The kilns operated for only about 25 years, but while it lasted Milwaukee led the nation in cement production.
And it all started when ordinary-looking rocks casually left on a desk were seen by possibly the only man in town who understood their significance.
In 1873, Joseph Berthelet, a Milwaukee manufacturer of cement sewer pipe, dropped by the city engineer’s office and noticed rock samples excavated as part of the construction of the North Avenue bridge.
Berthelet thought the rocks looked identical to the natural cement limestone he had seen while purchasing cement from a mill in Louisville, Kentucky.
There was only one way to be sure. He quietly collected samples of his own. In his kitchen that night he burned the limestone until it was semi-soft and ground it into powder. He added enough water to make a paste, which he formed into little balls and flat cakes. Some he dropped into water and others he left out to air-dry.
The next morning, all the samples, even the ones that had spent the night under water, were rock-hard. Harder, in fact, than the original limestone. At that moment he knew part of the city of Milwaukee was sitting on a rare and very valuable deposit of hydraulic cement limestone.
Now Berthelet needed to find where the rock was both close to the surface and on land available for purchase. After a long and solitary search by horse and buggy, he found the place he was looking for. Along the river just north of today’s Capitol Drive, he saw the limestone shelf emerging from low banks.
He shared his discovery with a few trusted friends in the business community. The men pooled their funds and formed the Milwaukee Cement Co. The new company soon arranged to buy most of the east bank of the river from Capitol Drive to Port Washington Road – today’s Estabrook park.
In 1876, the company installed a grinder and kiln in a ravine south of the present-day dog exercise area. Three hundred and fifty workers started digging rock from horizontal and vertical shafts. More kilns boosted production to 2,000 barrels a day.
With business booming, the company acquired the land on the west bank of the river and built a second mill, also with a daily capacity of 2,000 barrels. By 1891, annual production reached 475,000 barrels (about 125 million pounds) and Milwaukee Cement was the largest producer in the United States.
Noticing that the river had done the work of topsoil removal, the company diverted the channel and quarried the riverbed. The result was a pair of manmade lakes, the largest named Cement Lake and a smaller named Blue Hole.
Rivals soon appeared. The Cream City Cement Co., backed by German-language newspaper publisher George Brumder, bought land and built a kiln just a quarter-mile from Milwaukee Cement.
Cream City Cement’s unfavorable location meant workers needed to dig deep vertical shafts to reach the limestone. Production was modest at about 200 barrels a day. In 1894, Milwaukee Cement purchased the failing Cream City Co. and closed the mill and its system of tunnels.
A third company, Consolidated Cement, established a mill on the shore of Lake Michigan in Fox Point, but it soon closed.
Just when things couldn’t go any better for Milwaukee Cement, it all came crashing down.
The invention of the rotary kiln produced a superior type of cement, known as Portland cement, from common materials. As availability spread, demand for natural cement fell. By the early 1900s, Milwaukee Cement was limping along as a distributor of Portland cement and leased its two mills for production of silica products. A fire destroyed one mill in 1910. In 1914, the second mill burned.
As its final act, the company sold off its land holdings. Milwaukee Country gained the east bank for park use. The west bank sold in parcels to various manufacturing companies.
Left behind was a much-altered landscape. Estabrook Park visitors were once able to explore the maze of abandoned shafts and caves. Several children lost their lives by wandering into the caves during winter, stepping on thin ice, and plunging into shafts filled with deep water.
Problems continued even after the park sealed the entrances. In 1960, a section of underground mine collapsed, causing a sinkhole the size of a residential lot.
But the most visible sign of mining activities was on the west bank. The company had confined the Milwaukee River to a channel east of its original course, then dug an immense quarry on the former riverbed. After operations ended, the quarry flooded forming a pair of large manmade lakes, Cement Lake to the south and Blue Hole to the north.
Although Estabrook Park had a public swimming beach many Milwaukeeans liked to cool off in the deep, spring-fed quarry lakes. But the lakes’ sudden drop-offs, underwater ledges, and submerged caves claimed many unwary swimmers. Blue Hole gained an especially infamous reputation, with a local newspaper remarking that it might as well be called “suicide hole.” It was filled in the 1930s. (A privately owned lake still exists to the north of the former Blue Hole.)
While no one regretted the loss of lethal Blue Hole, the fate of 30-acre Cement Lake would be the subject of heated debate for many years. In the 1920s, the city acquired part of the west bank and started using the lake as a rubbish dump. Many, including land commission member C.B. Whitnall, urged the lake’s preservation.
The Milwaukee Journal, in its June 24, 1929 issue summed up the opposition this way: “Why select a picturesque section of the river for a public dump? To be sure, dumping grounds must be found somewhere. Nor can the commissioner of public works be blamed if he becomes irritated when, having found an out-of-the-way dumping ground, someone comes along and wants to preserve it for its beauty and utility. The two banks at this point, however, will practically be one park, and this park might have an attractive lake in its center. Such a resource should not be thrown away because it is inconvenient to find a dumping ground.”
Whitnall and his supporters won a moratorium on dumping but nothing was done to clean up the existing garbage.
In the 1930s, the west bank of the river, north of city dump, was occupied by a Depression-era shantytown of 25 to 30 shacks made from discarded tin signs, cardboard, and tarpaper. Inhabitants dubbed the crude shacks on the river’s edge “Estabrook Lowlands” and the ones on the top of the bank “Estabrook Highlands.”
Unemployed skilled workers were included among the shanty dwellers, who were united by a common refusal to accept public assistance. One of the residents, Harold Lundwall, a tool and die maker who had been without work for 19 months, invited a reporter into his “Depression villa.” A steady, cold rain was finding its way through Lundwall’s improvised roof in rivulets, but a stove made from a discarded automobile gas tank kept the interior warm and snug.
“[I was] born and bred in Milwaukee,” says Harold. “It’s my hometown. But when a fellow’s family is hard up, too … it’s better this way….” He hurries from one subject to the next. “Look,” he says, pointing to a half-finished doll’s house, “I’m making it for my niece.” – Milwaukee Journal, Feb. 12, 1933
In 1953, the Milwaukee Common Council’s Buildings and Grounds Committee voted 3-2 to resume using the lake as a rubbish dump. The long-dormant public debate immediately picked up where it had left off.
In February of that year, the Milwaukee Journal editorialized in favor of saving the lake: “Cement Lake lies between the river and the gravel road that skirts the west bank. It is spring fed. It has much natural beauty, including a ridge of land that encircles it. It is a fine lagoon – the very kind of thing we have spent so much money to build in many another county park.”
But there was no reprieve. It required a million cubic yards of garbage and more than five years to fill Cement Lake. During that time, Estabrook Park visitors had a panoramic view of an ever-growing rubbish heap. Today the paved-over landfill is a remote parking lot for the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the dream of one park on both sides of the river with a lake in the middle vanished.