Rotary Centennial Arboretum, south of Riverside Park, is the newest of the city’s chain of Milwaukee River parks. Opened in 2013 at a cost of $8.5 million, it is managed by the Urban Ecology Center. It has nearly four miles of trails, outdoor learning areas for school groups, and extensive plantings of native trees, shrubs, wildflowers, grasses and sedges.
Most visitors are unaware the park sits atop a specially trucked-in two-foot-thick layer of clean soil that isolates and safely contains the lead, arsenic, and other toxic compounds that saturate the original soil.
The contaminates are about all that remains of one of city’s largest industrial concerns. Established on the willow-shaded east bank of the Milwaukee River in 1901, the plant grew rapidly until it employed 1,400 workers and included four main buildings, a large machine shop, a foundry turning out more than 1,000 tons of castings a month, an office building, and numerous smaller structures.
And then it was over. The vast factory complex fell silent after just 30 years. This is the story of National Brake & Electric Co.
The central figure is Niels Christensen. He was born in Denmark in 1865 to a distinguished family. As a child, he spent most his spare time in the workshops on his father’s estate, where he built complex toys for himself and his friends, including windmills, waterwheels, and miniature steam engines.
He attended both day and evening schools studying mathematics and applied mechanics. At age 18, he became a journeyman machinist and pattern maker. By 21, he was working for the Danish Navy on the nation’s newest warships. After winning a government prize for his efforts, Christiansen moved to England to further his technical education. Coming to America in 1891, he found employment with an engineering firm in Chicago and, three years later joined the Edward P. Allis Co. of Milwaukee.
During his time in Chicago, Christiansen witnessed a fatal streetcar accident, which started him thinking of ways to improve the braking systems used on electric railways. In 1892 he designed and patented his first streetcar brake. Tests using streetcars in Detroit and Milwaukee were successful, but it took five more years to find investors, gather initial orders, and establish the Christensen Engineering Co.
Oddly, Christiansen was not a stockholder in the business bearing his name. Investors Frank G. Bigelow, Samuel W. Watkins, and Henry G. Goll provided the financing and owned the works. The company paid Christiansen royalties to license his patented designs. The inventor also oversaw day-to-day production.
The Christiansen brake quickly became the standard for streetcars all over the world. By the early 1900s orders were pouring into the new factory on the Milwaukee River.
Flush with cash and seeing opportunities everywhere, the stockholders decided to expand into manufacturing electrical devices. It was a move strongly opposed by Christiansen, who understood the shift in focus would place them in competition with more established firms possessing vastly greater resources. But since he owned no stock, Christiansen had no real say in the matter.
In 1902, he resigned as general superintendent. A year later, the business was incorporated under a new name, National Electric Co., and announced plans to double its workforce of 600 men. In 1905, its principal shareholder, Milwaukee banker Frank G. Bigelow, ran into financial difficulties. At the bankruptcy sale that followed in March 1906, Westinghouse Manufacturing Co. purchased Bigelow’s controlling interest in the firm, which it renamed National Brake & Electric Co.
The plant on the bank of the Milwaukee River continued to expand. It tripled in size in the first few years of Westinghouse′s ownership. In August 1910, the company announced plans for a four-story-tall, 186 x 247-foot extension to a factory building along with construction of an 86 x 140-foot warehouse. The Milwaukee Sentinel noted this was the third time in less than a year the company had taken out building permits for additions to its plant.
Westinghouse continued National’s streetcar brake business without negotiating a license from Christiansen. The inventor responded by licensing his brake patents, all 65 of them, to another company. He then filed a patent infringement suit against Westinghouse and turned his attention to new endeavors.
In the meantime, the factory on Milwaukee’s East Side was growing rapidly. In 1912, Milwaukee Sentinel reported its furnaces were consuming 1.25 million gallons of oil a year.
In 1918, when a reporter from the Milwaukee Journal visited, National Brake & Electric Co. covered 14 acres, employed 1,000 men and women, and was busy with World War I production. This included four-wheel-drive military trucks, heavy-duty lathes, air compressors, and gasoline-powered locomotives.
The Journal visited again in 1929 and found workers engaged in making 30-ton iron castings, so large that the only way to make a mold for them was to dig a pit in the factory floor. Not far away, other workers were performing machine work so precise “it would arouse the admiration of a jeweler.”
The reporter’s account is vividly descriptive:
Thousands passing through the east side of the city have seen the plant from a distance. But few know that it has foundries that are among the largest in the city. There, for the length of a block, sweating toiling men wrestle with massive things, like so many pygmies in a giant’s workshop. They labor in a grayish light that seems the more gloomy as spots of brilliant light flash out from pots of molten metal.
At one end buckets are being preheated as a great flame of burning oil roars thunder while a new batch of 30 to 48 tons is being made ready by goggled men in one of two tilting furnaces where the heat reaches 4,500 to 4,800 degrees. And over all is an acrid odor of metal under heat.
Then another picture, another long building where the noise is so deafening that a boiler factory in comparison is like purring kittens. Here the castings are finished off, smoothed down and made ready for delivery. Sparks shower like the tail of a comet from huge grindstones revolving at terrific speed. A great saw cuts through a foot of steel as if it were so much butter. Goggled men take roaring torches and slice off chunks of steel. Air tool operators rival the racket of a machine shop as they chip and smooth the castings.
Out of these foundries have come the propeller wheel weighing seven and one-half tons for the lake steamer Christopher Columbus; 20-ton jaws for steel cutting sheers; 30-ton parts for crushers; rudder frames for ships; locomotive stokers and anything massive that industry wants. – The Milwaukee Journal, October 12, 1929
A few months after this story appeared, the company was in the news again.
In February 1930, after a 24-year legal battle that included three separate appearances before the U.S. Supreme Court, the National Brake & Electric Co. was ordered to pay Niels Christensen, then 70 years old, the sum of $260,000 for infringing his brake patents. Bound together, the case file filed eight thick volumes. The lawsuit had been in the courts so long many of the attorneys and judges initially involved retired and died of old age before it was settled.
Then the Great Depression sent Westinghouse’s profits into a tailspin. In 1931, the company started moving production from Milwaukee to its factories in Pennsylvania. One by one the complex of buildings fell silent. On a bleak February day in 1932, one of the final products made by National Brake & Electric, a locomotive, left the factory. “In place of the 1,400 men, there are today six who, as watchmen, rattle around in 14 acres of roofed emptiness,” the Milwaukee Journal reported.
Westinghouse put the plant on the market but was unable to attract a buyer.
“In the last few months, furnaces, cranes, and machinery have been sold for scrap iron,” the Milwaukee Journal reported in its April 28, 1937, edition, “The vast erecting shops contain a sparrow or two; in the foundry, one of the largest in the city, the overhead crane is doing a last creaking dance pulling out more equipment to be melted up – perhaps for Germany or Japan or somebody else’s cannon.”
When the scrap was gone, the brick and stone industrial buildings began to come down. The factory’s 150-foot brick chimney provided a formable challenge – and an unexpected surprise.
With walls four-feet-thick at its base the chimney contained 2,000,000 bricks. Its fall had to be precisely calculated, for if it toppled in the wrong direction it would land on nearby businesses, which included a paper mill warehouse and a garage owned by the Wisconsin Ice & Coal Co.
The contractor, Frank Pipkorn, decided to drop it in the direction of the river and proceeded to remove the top 30 feet of the chimney so it would not reach the water. His workers then painstakingly notched out about half the base of the chimney, removing the bricks one by one and wedging heavy wood timbers in their place.
Then, the Milwaukee Journal reported, workers set fire to the timbers, confident that when they burned away the chimney would fall. Just then a rainstorm came along and put out the fire. Confronted by a massive, dangerously unstable chimney largely supported by charred wood, they decided to call it a day and come up with a new plan.
At 9 a.m. the following morning, contractor Pipkorn was in his office a few blocks away at 2941 N. Humboldt Ave., when he heard a tremendous roar. The chimney had fallen by itself and, Pipkorn was relieved to learn, landed exactly “to the inch” of where he intended.
Its fall placed a final exclamation mark on a corporate history of rapid growth – and of one final shattering collapse.