Author: MilwaukeeNotebook

Carl Swanson blogs about Milwaukee history. He has written for newspapers and magazines for more than 25 years. He lives in Milwaukee's Riverwest neighborhood with his wife, three children, and two cats.

City Hall, a landmark for 120 years

An early postcard view of Milwaukee's City Hall. Carl Swanson collection

An early postcard view of Milwaukee’s City Hall. Carl Swanson collection

Happy birthday to Milwaukee’s City Hall, inaugurated on Dec. 23, 1895. In honor of our beloved landmark, test your knowledge with these 10 facts about the building. How many did you know?

1) The building’s ornate style is Flemish Renaissance. Local architect Henry C. Koch & Co. designed City Hall to fit an awkward triangular lot. The local firm beat a rival proposal from a Chicago architect for a Gothic style building. The Chicago firm’s plans had a few drawbacks, among them a complete absence of any ladies’ rest rooms.


Owney, the post office dog

Owney, whose remains are displayed in the National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C., is one of the most famous – and certainly most widely traveled – animals of all time. In 1895, his visit to Milwaukee made headlines. Courtesy National Postal Museum

One of the most popular exhibits at the National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C. is a dog named Owney. One of the most famous – and certainly most widely traveled – animals of all time, Owney’s 1895 visit to Milwaukee made headlines. Carl Swanson photo

In 1895, a globetrotting mixed-breed mutt named Owney paid a brief call on Milwaukee. As was his custom, the dog arrived aboard one train and departed a few hours later by another. His home was anywhere U.S. mail traveled by railroad – and in the 1890s that was everywhere. (more…)

From movie palace to temple

Zenith Theater Milwaukee

A former Milwaukee movie palace turned church is now for sale. It was originally among the city’s finest theaters, but things really got interesting when a faith-healing evangelist came to town. Carl Swanson photo

In 1930, Milwaukeeans wishing to see a movie had their choice of 89 movie theaters. They ranged from modest neighborhood movie theaters like the Grand on Holton Street to “movie palaces” – dazzling cost-is-no-object cathedrals of motion pictures.

The Oriental Theater on Farwell Avenue is a surviving movie palace. Less known is the 1,300-seat Zenith Theater at 2498 W. Hopkins St. It survived largely because of a traveling faith healer, whose colorful antics captivated – and occasionally angered – Milwaukeeans.


A death foretold

On June 23, 1912, Milwaukee resident Henry Hill was at his home on First Street when he experienced a powerful vision seemingly suggesting his brother, John Hill, a resident of Leicester, England, had died.

Troubled by the experience, Henry Hill immediately wrote a description of his vision on a sheet of paper, dated it, and sealed it in an envelope.

He then mailed an anxious letter to relatives in England. A reply was a long time coming and when it arrived it contained news of his brother’s death on July 20th – nearly a month after Henry had experienced his vision.

The letter from England noted on June 23rd, the date of the premonition, his sister had just arrived at the bedside of their brother who was slowly dying. His family in England, the letter added, had not wished to disturb him with the news of John’s terminal illness until it was all over.

A Milwaukee friend then opened Henry Hill’s sealed message of June 23rd. and read the following: “I believe I received about 4 p.m. American central time, or about 11 a.m. Greenwich time, a wireless message in the shape of an envelope bordered in black and a package containing some beautiful white lilies tied with a white silk ribbon, and the name of my brother, John Hill, on a card. It impressed me so deeply I had to speak about it and I am anxious for the next mail.”

A newspaper reporter added, “His friends are still puzzling over his uncanny experience.” – Source: Milwaukee Journal, Aug. 27, 1912

Rescue on Lake Michigan

Ingar Olsen

In 1893, Surfman Ingar Olsen of the U.S. Life-Saving Service in Milwaukee performed one of the most daring rescues in Lake Michigan history.

Ingar Olsen, a 22-year-old surfman with the Milwaukee station of the U.S. Life-Saving Service, was never able to explain his actions on April 20, 1893. With near-hurricane winds whipping a bitterly cold Lake Michigan into towering, violently churning waves, Olsen’s crew struggled through the storm in an open rowboat to reach a lone man, unconscious, near death, and clinging to wreckage 3,000 feet off Bradford Beach.

Olsen said, “As we finally maneuvered into position, I unconsciously dropped my oar, picked my way between the other men in the boat … and made a dive. No command had been given and weeks later, when I was asked to explain how I happened to do what I did at the time, I was unable to give any explanation … it was just as though an unseen hand was guiding my actions.”

Against incredible odds, Olsen was about to make one of the most dramatic rescues in Lake Michigan history.

A very Milwaukee ghost story

Long ago, a man named Otto Krause owned a rooming house in the township of Lake (bordered by Greenfield Avenue to the north, College Avenue to the south, and from 27th Street east to Lake Michigan). All was well until, one by one, his tenants began to move out, unnerved by moaning and the sound of rattling chains coming from the basement.

Krause and his eldest son decided to investigate. Taking seats in the living room the men prepared to wait through the night to  see what manifested. As local historian Robert W. Wells wrote in the Milwaukee Journal‘s Jan. 20, 1971 edition, “The wind howled. Boards creaked. Finally, when the suspense built up sufficiently, the ghostly moaning and chain rattling began.”

Krause, a former town constable, rose to his feet, a loaded pistol in each hand and ordered his son to open the basement door. The two men started down the steps ….

“It might be better to end the story there,” wrote Wells, “but what happened was Krause found a former tenant hiding in the cellar. Otto had evicted him for not paying his rent and the fellow had come back to rattle chains and moan into a heating pipe to get his revenge.”

There are allegedly haunted places in Milwaukee. A tugboat may still be manned by its long-dead crew. Wells’ employer, the Milwaukee Journal, may have a ghostly clerk. The Eagles Club is often said to be haunted and some think it is the spirit of a boy who drowned there. However, skeptics and believers alike can eliminate Krause’s rooming house from the list of locally spooky places.Carl_sig

Sunk, burned, and haunted, this tugboat keeps on working

Port of Milwaukee tugboat Wisconsin

A long history, a tragedy, and persistent stories of paranormal happenings center on this hardworking tugboat, a fixture of the Port of Milwaukee for many years. At the age of 122, it’s also the oldest workboat on the Great Lakes. Carl Swanson photo

In 1897, the Union Dry Dock Co. in Buffalo built a tugboat. In the years following, the tugboat sank (twice) and was raised, burned (twice) and was rebuilt. Today, after 121 strenuous years, the same tug is still at work, deftly assisting far larger ships in and out of the port. When it comes to tough workboats, the Wisconsin is in a class all its own.

The Wisconsin, some say, is also haunted.


He taught Milwaukee to dance

From its start as a venue for boxing and roller skating, Dreamland evolved in the early 1900s into a ballroom, the elegance of which, the management suggested, made it Milwaukee's

From its beginnings as a venue for boxing and roller skating, Dreamland evolved in the early 1900s into a ballroom, the elegance of which, the management suggested, made it Milwaukee’s “College of Deportment.” Proprietor A.C. Wirth is shown in the inset photo on this postcard. Carl Swanson collection

If you were out and about in Milwaukee in the early 1900s, you probably knew—or knew of—Andrew Charles Wirth. With his magnificent moustache and his elegant, if eccentric, habit of dressing in white tie, black tailcoat and ballet slippers, “Professor” Wirth was certainly easy to recognize.

He owned a statewide chain of dance studios, including several locations in Milwaukee, and he was the proprietor of Dreamland Ballroom on Wells Street between Sixth and Seventh.

A biographer described Wirth thus: “Agreeable in manner, an enthusiast in his vocation, popular with those with whom he comes in contact, he is a good example of what one may accomplish with energy and a definite purpose.”

At Dreamland, in 1911, Wirth made a remarkable offer. He would teach anyone to dance—free of charge. Wirth’s newspaper advertisement explained the offer:


Five favorites for Doors Open Milwaukee

Doors Open Milwaukee was held Saturday and Sunday, September 19th and 20th. About 200 locations, many normally closed to the public, were open for visitors. Here are five of my favorite places to visit during this annual event.

1. Former Pabst Brewery

Although the area is undergoing rapid development, some of the original Pabst buildings remain. Photo illustration by Carl Swanson

Although the area is undergoing rapid redevelopment, some of the original Pabst buildings remain. Photo by Carl Swanson

Tour a speakeasy (actually, the former plant infirmary and ancient storage tunnels) at the Best Place at the Historic Pabst Brewery, 901 W. Juneau Ave. The speakeasy is open if the red jelly jar light is illuminated at the doorway marked “J.C. Haertel Real Estate & Financial Consulting.” The Pabst Brewing Co. was the subject of this Milwaukee Notebook post. (more…)

Death visits the orphanage

St. Amilianus Orphan Asylum in St. Francis

This 1907 postcard image shows St. Amilianus Orphan Asylum in St. Francis, Wis. In 1929, two young orphans died here in a mysterious poisoning. Carl Swanson collection

One morning in February 1929, four boys, residents of St. Aemilian’s Orphan Asylum in St. Francis, were sorting cabbages in the cellar of the massive building. When this chore was completed they joined 170 other residents for a lunch of beans and sauerkraut. That morning, though, they found something more appetizing – a small paper bag containing what seemed to be sweet-tasting cookie crumbs.

By the afternoon of the following day, two of the boys, Philip Giganti, 13, and Joseph Djeska, 12, were dead. The other two, Frank Novakovich, 13, and his brother Paul, 12, were desperately ill. The orphanage’s staff physician, along with another doctor called in to assist, had no difficulty establishing the cause – arsenic poisoning. (more…)