Testing outboards in Riverwest

The concrete footings of the Evinrude outboard motor testing facility can still be seen on the west bank of the Milwaukee River, near the foot of East Wright Street. Carl Swanson photo

The concrete footings of the Evinrude outboard motor testing facility can still be seen on the west bank of the Milwaukee River, near the foot of East Wright Street. Carl Swanson photo

There are reminders of the past everywhere along the upper Milwaukee River. For example, you can still see traces of the testing facility of Evinrude outboard motors on the west side of the river between East Wright and East Meinecke streets.

If these pieces of aged concrete could speak … well, they might tell you about the time Ole Evinrude made an ice cream run.

The narrowing of the the Milwaukee River after the opening of the North Avenue dam has left the Evinrude outboard motor test facility high and dry.

The narrowing of the the Milwaukee River after the opening of the North Avenue dam has left the former site of the Evinrude outboard motor test facility high and dry.

Ole Evinrude was a child in 1882 when his family emigrated to America from Norway. The family settled in Cambridge, Wis., where Ole was educated in a one-room schoolhouse. By third grade he was able to solve all the equations in the school’s eighth-grade mathematics textbook – and promptly quit going to school.

When he turned 16 he signed on as a machinist apprentice in Madison and then worked for a series of firms, including a steel mill, a maker of electrical devices, and a company manufacturing industrial engines. At age 23, Ole came to Milwaukee to work for the Edward P. Allis Co. as head of the pattern department.

Ole and Bess Evinrude

Ole and Bess Evinrude

In his spare time, he built a gasoline engine in his boarding house and met Bessie Cary, a young woman who lived a few doors down. Photos show Ole, a kind-hearted, shy, giant of a man, towering over Bess.

One hot August day, Ole and Bess picnicked at Okauchee Lake. Bess mentioned that ice cream would taste good on a day like this, and that was all the encouragement Ole needed. With the sun beating down and the temperature above 90, he rowed across the lake, found a store, and rowed back. It was a four-mile roundtrip and he returned, hot and blistered, with an unappetizing carton of melted goop.

Ole found himself wishing somebody would invent a motor that could clamp to a rowboat. Then he thought, “Why don’t I do it?”

Bess and Ole married in 1906. He tried launching a business of his own. An attempt at starting an automobile company failed. He then opened a pattern-making shop, which thrived. With his business firmly established, Ole had time to tinker with his prototype outboard motor.

His first attempt, a 1½ horsepower, single cylinder outboard, was patented in 1907. It greatly amused Bess, who thought it looked like a coffee grinder. Two years later, Ole built an improved working prototype. Encouraged by a successful test run on the Kinnickinnic River, he ordered enough parts to make 25 outboard motors. A few weeks later, one of his shop employees borrowed the prototype for a weekend trip to Pewaukee Lake. He returned with the engine – and 10 paid-in-advance orders.

Ole didn’t invent the first outboard motor – a handful of companies were already marketing them – but Ole’s practical and well-made engines gained widespread acceptance and laid the groundwork for the entire outboard industry.

Evinrude outboard motors were invented, perfected, and manufactured in Milwaukee, and they were tested in Riverwest. Carl Swanson photo

Evinrude outboard motors were manufactured in Milwaukee for 90 years, and for many of those years the company tested new its designs in Riverwest. Carl Swanson photo

Evinrude was in business, but there was a problem. Ole could design products, supervise a factory, and kept production flowing smoothly but he was hopeless at keeping books, dealing with correspondence, or the myriad of other details involved in running a company. That’s when Bess stepped in as office manager. She wrote the company’s first ad (“Don’t row! Throw the oars away! Use an Evinrude motor!”). She wrote and mailed circulars. Knowing the mistrust of women in business in that pre-World War I era, Bess signed the company’s correspondence “B. Evinrude.”

With Bess running the business and Ole watching over the factory, orders by the tens, the hundreds, and, soon, the thousands rolled in. The company quickly outgrew its first factory on Lake Street and moved into a three-story building on Reed Street as employment reached 300.

In 1913, Evinrude sold 9,412 outboard motors. Many corporate twists and turns followed, including ownership changes, the founding of a new company, and finally a multi-company merger in 1929, which established Ole Evinrude as president of the largest outboard maker in the world. The merger also allowed Bess, who had been in frail health for some time, to retire

The merged company, called Outboard Motors Corp., consolidated manufacturing operations in a plant north of the intersection of 27th Street and Capitol Drive. The factory had a capacity of 400 motors a day in 1929 and employed 750. But the arrival of the Great Depression would see employment cut to a minimum, and those few workers limited to 16 hours a week as OMC struggled to attract orders. Ole stopped drawing a salary and used his personal fortune to keep the company afloat.

Bess Evinrude died in 1933 at the age of 48. Ole never emotionally recovered from the loss of his wife and died 14 months later. He was 57.

Their son, Ralph, age 27, took over the multi-brand recreational boating empire now known as Outboard Marine Corp. The company was a major defense contractor during World War II, building outboards for the military as well as aircraft engine superchargers. The end of the war unleashed pent-up demand for recreational goods, and OMC’s family of brands couldn’t build boats and engines fast enough. OMC produced 262,000 outboard motors in 1947, equaling the combined production of the 14 other outboard makers in the U.S. Production topped 400,000 by 1960 and OMC operated plants across the U.S., in Canada, and Belgium.

At its peak, Evinrude’s Milwaukee operations employed about 1,800 people. Among its various machine shops and factories was the modest test facility on the Milwaukee River. Here, where the river was at its widest above the North Avenue dam, company engineers methodically turned pre-production mock-ups into new products. And it was here many of Evinrude’s innovations took to the water – the first electric start outboard, the first rubber mounting system, the first 40-horsepower engine, the first V-4 outboard engine, the first angled-drive weedless propeller, and an exhaust system that cut motor noise by 50 percent. By far, the oddest was the flying saucer fishing boat, which made its public debut on this section of river in 1957.

The test facility was located on North Bush Lane. This road, now gone, once extended from under the North Avenue bridge to access to several properties along a wide, level section of riverbank. A 1910 map shows two houses on Bush Lane, four structures for boat storage, and a boat repair shop.

The small Evinrude building and its concrete dock are shown in a 1951 photo.

The small Evinrude building located on North Bush Lane and its concrete dock are shown in a 1951 aerial photo.

By 1951, as an aerial photo shows, only the test facility remained at the end of Bush Lane.

A few pieces of asphalt in the weeds and a bare utility mark Bush Lane, a long-gone road along the west edge of the river. Carl Swanson photo

A few pieces of asphalt in the weeds and a bare utility mark Bush Lane, a long-gone road along the west edge of the river. Carl Swanson photo

In 1957, Evinrude constructed a much bigger boathouse and test station near the harbor entrance at the confluence of the Milwaukee and Kinnickinnic rivers. This section of waterway didn’t freeze in the winter because car ferries operating nearby kept the ice broken up. (This facility was acquired by the state in the 1980s and is now a public boat launch.)

The upper river facility continued to operate for a time but eventually closed. In 1966, Evinrude donated the property, about 600 feet of river frontage, to the county for park purposes.

Ralph Evinrude died in 1986. A few years later, the company stumbled into a crisis. The federal government singled out two-cycle small engines, a type that included most outboard motors, as significant polluters. As Evinrude struggled to clean-up its engines, Japanese builders entered the U.S. market with well-made, relatively clean-burning four-cycle outboards.

In December 2000, OMC filed bankruptcy and laid off 7,000 workers in plants across the country. It was the end of the company as a major employer in Milwaukee, but Ole’s name lives on. In 2001, Bombardier Recreational Products (BRP) acquired the brand and today makes Evinrude outboards in Sturdevant, Wis.

In 2005, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency awarded BRP-Evinrude the Clean Air Excellence Award for its E-TEC engine technology – the first outboard motor to earn the prestigious award.

Today, the most-powerful outboard in Evinrude’s E-TEC family is a 300 h.p. V6, which the company says outperforms any engine in its class while using the least amount of fuel. If Ole could see it he might say, “Now that’s what I’m talking about! Who wants some ice cream?”

Fifty years ago, Wisconsin was the industry leader in outboard motors, with five major manufacturers producing half the motors sold in the U.S., and the upper Milwaukee river hummed with the sound of Evinrude motors.

And just over a mile from the river, at 245 E. Keefe Ave., a newly formed outboard motor company was tooling up, eager to win a place among the industry giants. But that’s a story for next time …

Thanks to Milwaukee Notebook reader Jeffrey Hoffman for suggesting this story.Carl_sig

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3 comments

  1. the old north ave viaduct had little storage rooms built into the bottom of the bridge just blow the deck and on both east and west sides. always wondered what they were for.

    Like

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