Milwaukee’s Grand Plan

A horse cart is featured in this vintage postcard view of Milwaukee's original Grand Avenue viaduct
Horse-drawn carts like the one shown in this postcard view were common sights when the Grand Avenue viaduct was built in the early 1900s. Carl Swanson collection

Wisconsin was in a mood to dream big in the years following the end of the Civil War. One idea involved extending Grand Avenue (today’s Wisconsin Avenue) from the shore of Lake Michigan all the way to Madison—creating an 80-mile-long boulevard lined the entire distance, they were certain, by elegant mansions and places of worship.

A suitably impressive way had to be found to carry Grand Avenue across the broad Menomonee River valley before anything like that could happen. So, after years of indecision and political infighting, Milwaukee set to work on a massive viaduct. Its construction sparked lawsuits, took far longer than expected, and cost much more than estimated.

Pretty much every Milwaukee road project ever, in other words.

But the Grand Avenue viaduct was also a triumph. Upon its completion in 1911, it was immediately regarded as one of the world’s most notable structures. [More]

8 comments

  1. Very nice article – I do vaguely recall the old viaduct since I’ve been in Milwaukee since 1970 and this isn’t too far away from where I used to teach. Would the Pigsville (sp?) neighborhood below the bridge be an area worth an article? Gurda has researched this area a lot, but maybe there’s a story or two about life down there.

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  2. Kick article, Carl! Wow, in 1904 Milwaukee had 38 county supervisors? That’s a lot of bureaucracy. I can see why it took so long to build. I like how the current structure kept the classic look.

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  3. This article was too long already, so I couldn’t describe the bridge designs that were runners-up in the national competition. My favorite of the “coulda beens” was a design that used gigantic statues of people engaged in different sporting activities instead of piers to hold up the bridge deck (hey, it’s Milwaukee, you know one of those statues would have been bowling!). There was also a gothic design with over-the-top ornamentation in the running. The county went for a clean art deco look instead, which was probably for the best.

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