Steamboat days on the Milwaukee River

The Whittaker was one of several steam-powered excursion boats plying the upper Milwaukee River in the late 1800s. Carl A. Swanson collection

In 1835, Byron Kilbourn, the developer of the west side of the city, built a dam across the Milwaukee River south of North Avenue. A log structure filled with earth and gravel, the dam was 480 feet long and 18 feet tall. It was designed to ensure a steady flow of water for a canal.

The canal was supposed to connect Milwaukee with the Mississippi River but financial troubles halted construction after a single mile had been dug. But Kilbourn’s dam changed the river – and the city – in ways he could not have imagined.

Below the dam, the river became a port for Lake Michigan ships and its banks were lined with tanneries, coal yards, and warehouses. It was a different world above the dam. Here one could find swimming schools, amusement parks, a beer garden, and the boathouses of at least 20 canoe clubs.

And, tucked under the east end of the North Avenue bridge, Phillip H. O’Connor operated a boat rental. For 25 cents, you could rent a rowboat for a half-day. Or, for 15 cents, take a seat aboard one of O’Connor’s three shallow-draft steam launches, which operated between today’s North Avenue and Capitol Drive bridges.

The steamers – the Niswassa, the L. O’Conner, and the Gen. Sheridan – could carry up to 75 passengers and a round trip (including stops at the Blatz Park beer garden and the Wonderland amusement park in Shorewood), took 40 minutes.

Steamboats take shape in O’Connor’s boatyard, in the shadow of the North Avenue bridge in this photograph from the 1880s. Carl A. Swanson collection

Born in Ireland, O’Connor moved with his parents to Milwaukee’s East Side when he was 5. By age 15, he was building wooden rowboats, which led to a job on the Great Lakes as a ship’s carpenter. Wishing to settle down, O’Connor built a fleet of wooden rowboats and started his rental business. In time more and more people were drawn to the river — and O’Conner had to build more and more rowboats to keep up with the demand.

O’Connor soon expanded into the building and operating steamboats. He even built a barge to tow behind a steamboat and serve as a floating dance floor and bandstand. On occasion, OConnors boats also pulled flotillas of canoes tied together.

The Electric Launch Company of New Jersey built a fleet of 55 battery-powered 36-foot-long launches for the World’s Colombian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. The sleek and silent boats carried more than a million passengers during the fair. When the exposition closed, O’Connor purchased some of the electric boats and added them to his growing fleet.

In September 1894, O’Connor died. According to his obituary, “Death resulted from the ruin of his nervous system by overwork.” He was 47 years old.

The Milwaukee Journal looked back on the river’s recreational past in a story published in its June 12th, 1952 edition, “For our good burghers … it was just like the Danube – beer, sandwiches, and concerts – and like the Danube the Milwaukee river wasn’t blue either. But the foliage along both the steep river banks was beautiful.”

A forgotten man today, O’Connor made the river accessible to residents.

A steamboat heads for the Blatz Park beer garden on the west bank of the Milwaukee River in this postcard view. Steamboats operated between the park and North Avenue. The fare was 15 cents. Beer, however, was a nickel. Carl A. Swanson collection

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5 comments

  1. It’s interesting to note that the battery-powered launches were recharged by tapping into the trolley circuits through an arrangement with the electric street railway. Also, the Whittaker was the namesake steamer of George J. Whittaker, whose boat rental business was an adjunct to the family’s swimming school at the East end of the North Avenue bridge. The family was represented by three generations of championship swimmers- who were frequently called upon for river rescues.

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  2. Do you know what year the photo of the Whittaker was taken. My great-grandmother had a boarding house on Bartlett at North Ave., so she and her daughters may well have taken a ride — and one of the passengers looks very much like my grandmother.

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    1. Thanks for reading! The photo is undated but possibly someone may have a better answer and will leave a comment. If we could learn the date the boat entered service we could really narrow it down. I’ll bet your grandmother and her daughters were very familiar with this appealing little steamboat — its dock was only a couple of blocks from their house.

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