Abandoned Milwaukee

Reminders of the past are still around us.

East Side tunnel to nowhere

Built more than a century ago, this stone tunnel portal in the east bluff of the Milwaukee River is near the intersection of North Cambridge Avenue and Hampshire Street. Partly filled in and heavily vandalized, it remains impressive — and mysterious. Carl A. Swanson photo

There is a mystery in Cambridge Woods Park on the east bank of the Milwaukee River — an ancient tunnel made from carefully cut and fitted stone blocks and large enough to drive a truck through.

From its portal in a bluff at the foot of Hampshire Street, the tunnel extends eastward under the Oak Leaf Trail only to end abruptly at a modern concrete wall about 60 feet inside the entrance.

Who built it? And for what purpose?  (more…)


Cracker-Jacks Park was a river landmark


A shopping cart at the north end of Richards Street marks the former location of Cracker-Jacks Park. This once-popular privately owned picnic grounds on the west bank of the Milwaukee River is nearly forgotten today. Carl A. Swanson photo

On the Fourth of July, 1938, two sisters, ages 6 and 12, seeking a spot to watch the Estabrook Park fireworks from the west bank of the Milwaukee River found trouble instead. As they approached the bluff, an adult male emerged from the bushes, slapped the 6-year-old twice across the face, picked her up, and carried her off down a ravine.

Fortunately, help was nearby. Henry Kaeding, a resident of the 4200 block of North Richards Street, came running at the sound of the older girl’s screams and charged into the ravine in pursuit of the abducted child and her assailant.

The top 5 posts of 2015


The Gordon Park bathing pavilion was the most popular blog post for the second year running. Photo by Jos. Brown.

Thank you for a great year in 2015! This blog was viewed 29,000 times in the past year. In 2015, 43 new posts were added to the site (for a total of 90) and 378 pictures uploaded, about a picture per day.

These are the top five posts of 2015. Have you read them all?

  1. Amid the ruins of Gordon Park’s riverside bathing pavilion
  2. Secrets of Shorewood’s Hubbard Park
  3. Just a neighborhood movie theater
  4. Drinking Pabst in Whitefish Bay
  5. Sunk, burned, and haunted, this tugboat keeps on working

Much more is on the way in 2016 —stay tuned!Carl_sig

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.


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…)

Milwaukee’s Center Street icehouse was a Riverwest landmark

This concrete foundation, atop a river bluff south of Gordon Park, supported Wisconsin Lakes Ice & Cartage Company's Center Street icehouse, which was destroyed in a massive fire 103 years ago. Carl Swanson photo

This concrete foundation, atop a river bluff south of Gordon Park, was part of the Wisconsin Lakes Ice & Cartage Company’s Center Street icehouse, destroyed in a massive fire a century ago. Carl Swanson photo

Reader Dan Soiney asks: “Do you know anything about the large concrete foundation in the woods just south of Gordon Park? If you wander off the Beer Line path right after entering the woods, there is a long three-sided foundation.”

The foundation is all that remains of the Wisconsin Lakes Ice & Cartage Co. Center Street icehouse. The 350 x 100-foot icehouse, built in the late 1800s alongside the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul RR’s “Beer Line,” was one of several icehouses on the upper Milwaukee River. The icehouse burned to the ground in a spectacular multi-alarm fire in June 1911 but parts of its foundation remain in the woods east of the Beer Line Trail.


Century-old dam is a reminder of Milwaukee’s up-river icehouses

This partially collapsed timber dam across the Milwaukee River north of Locust Street is all that remains of the Schlitz Brewing Company's ice-harvesting operation. Carl Swanson photo

This century-old partially collapsed timber dam across the Milwaukee River north of Locust Street is all that remains of the Schlitz Brewing Company’s ice-harvesting operation in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood. Carl Swanson photo

There is a fascinating reminder of Riverwest’s past hidden in plain sight in the Milwaukee River just north of the Locust Street bridge. Here logs across the river trace the remains of the Schlitz icehouse dam. The dam is over a century old, but the reason for Schlitz building its icehouses here dates back even further – all the way to late 1878 when this area was largely open country.


An ignored Estabrook Park artifact hints at early Indian settlement

This large, flat rock in Estabrook Park with its two deep oval-shaped hollows, was thought to have been used by early Native Americans to grind corn. The rock was once quite a historic attraction for the park. It appears to be completely forgotten now. Photo by Carl Swanson

This large, flat rock in Estabrook Park with its two deep oval-shaped hollows was said to have been used by early Native Americans to grind corn. Once this was an important  historic attraction for the park but now has seemingly been forgotten. Photo by Carl Swanson

On May 14, 1952, the Milwaukee Journal printed an article promoting the idea of an automobile trip to various Milwaukee County Parks, including Estabrook. The article advised visitors not to miss an artifact that was then a well-known attraction in the park but today has been forgotten. (more…)

Amid the ruins of Gordon Park


A retaining wall is a reminder of Gordon Park’s bathhouse, built 100 years ago along the west bank of the Milwaukee River. Photo by Carl Swanson

Enjoy this sample chapter from the new book, Lost Milwaukee, by Milwaukee Notebook blogger Carl Swanson

Deep in the trees along the west bank of the Milwaukee River near the Locust Street bridge is a strange sight: a century-old concrete retaining wall, with two sets of stairs leading down into a field of tall grass. The wall is all that remains of the Gordon Park bathhouse, a point of considerable civic pride when it opened one hundred years ago but ultimately cursed by its location and by steadily worsening water pollution.