Breweries

Milwaukee is the beer capital for a reason.

A bridge by any other name …

A photograph showing the north end of the Pleasant Valley box culvert.
The site of a famous Milwaukee River beer garden at the turn of the last century, the only structure in Pleasant Valley Park today resembles a pedestrian bridge, but it actually has a much different function. Carl Swanson photo.

Pleasant Valley Park, located on the west bank of the Milwaukee River south of Kern Park, contains a mystery. The only manmade structure in the undeveloped and heavily overgrown county park is a 250-foot-long pedestrian bridge emerging from a sloping hill, crossing a valley, and ending at the opposite wall of the ravine. No developed trails lead to it, although walkers have worn meandering paths to and from the structure. 

It’s solidly built and impressively large – and it also seemingly serves no purpose. Why is it there?

I was recently contacted by WUWM Milwaukee Public Radio’s Bubbler Talk program, which was seeking the answer to a listener’s question, “Why is there a large bridge in the middle of the woods by the river in Riverwest that goes nowhere? Is it a remnant of Blatz Park?”

Blatz Park, originally called Pleasant Valley when it opened in 1870, was a popular beer garden at the turn of the last century. It featured a restaurant pavilion, live music, and extensive and beautifully maintained grounds. It was served by shallow-draft steamboats operating from a dock near the North Avenue bridge. A roundtrip was 15 cents and included stops at Wonderland Amusement Park in Shorewood and the beer garden in Pleasant Valley.

The park closed after World War I, a victim of changing tastes in entertainment and the rise of the private automobile. A swimming school briefly took its place until it, too, closed. In the 1920s, the land was sold to Milwaukee County by the Blatz family to facilitate the construction of a planned roadway along the river. The road was never built, and the land was handed over to the Milwaukee County Parks System.

Read about Pleasant Valley’s beer garden days.

Apart from a few concrete footings near the river, nothing remains of Blatz Park today and the mysterious structure is of far newer construction.

A photograph showing a side view of the concrete box culvert in Pleasant Valley Park, Milwaukee
Why was this bridge deep in the woods south of Kern Park? The answer is simple. It’s not a bridge at all. Carl Swanson photo

That gets us back to the original question. What the heck is this thing in the woods? Its thick, square cross-section suggests an enclosed aqueduct – a bridge for carrying water across a valley.

At first, I thought it might be a water main. After all, the structure is just north of the Riverside Pumping Station, which distributes fresh water from the treatment plant on the lake throughout this section of the city.

Read about the historic Riverside Pumping Station.

As I tried to get usable photos of this bridge/aqueduct/box culvert/alien artifact/whatever – no easy task given the thick woods – I noticed the covers of nearby manholes were lettered “sewer”.

I contacted the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) and asked if the bridge belonged to them. Keith Kalinger, Senior Project Manager, replied, “It’s actually a 60-inch sanitary sewer that transports flow south to the Jones Island Water Reclamation Facility. The current aqueduct was constructed in 1999 to replace an existing one whose plans date from 1918.”

He added, “It’s not even our only aqueduct. There is another one in Estabrook Park along the walking trail that starts near Capitol Drive.”

A photo showing the cast-in concrete arch detail in the Pleasant Valley sewer culvert.
Built in 1999, the box culvert was designed with tapered concrete legs that flow into cast-in arch shapes – graceful touches for a sewer line in a seldom-visited part of Pleasant Valley Park. Carl Swanson photo

Rather than a bridge to nowhere, the aqueduct is a sensible response to challenging topography. It’s more cost-effective to run the line across an elevated structure than bury the pipe deep enough to go under the ravine in Pleasant Valley Park. Applied Technologies, the designer of the 1999 project, and Lunda Construction, its builder, gave some thought to its appearance. Tapered supporting legs flow into arches cast into the concrete surface. They also added stainless steel safety railings along the top to create an inviting walkway. The whole thing cost a half-million dollars in 1999. Pretty snazzy sewer!

We don’t often think of sewers. If they come to our notice at all it’s because something horrible is happening. Hidden and largely ignored, they are absolutely vital to the city’s wellbeing. Consider this glimpse of life before sewers from Orlando Wright, the city’s Commissioner of Health, who reported in 1879:

Sometimes, in a dry season, the sewage of Milwaukee nearly equals the quantity of water flowing in the rivers. At least 100 tons of human and animal excreta, to say nothing of other putrescible organic matters, are emptied into these sluggish streams every day. Their waters are dark with filth, and yet the question is asked whether they are unhealthy. If a thick solution of ordure is unhealthy, the Milwaukee and Menomonee rivers are certainly so.

First Annual Report of the Commission of Health of Milwaukee, January 1879

The sewer mains running along both banks of the Milwaukee River, intercepting wastewater and diverting it for treatment, were built in response to these intolerable conditions and are a major reason the river today is in a far cleaner and healthier state than it was in Milwaukee’s formative years.

Thanks to Kathryn M. Schmitt, MMSD contract compliance administrator, for her assistance with this article.

A panoramic view of the aqueduct from October 2000 shows tidy landscaping and small trees.
The Pleasant Valley aqueduct, as it appeared in October 2000 shortly after its completion. Photo courtesy MMSD

Interested in learning more about Milwaukee’s fascinating (and occasionally odd) history? Check out my book. (Paid link)


The forgotten Milwaukee River park

Pleasant Valley Park on the west bank of the Milwaukee River was once one of the city's most popular beer gardens. Owned by the Blatz brewery and visited by thousands, it featured elaborate landscaping, a restuarant, bandshell, pavilion, steamboat dock, and even a few cottages. In 2014, little remains to remind visitors of its glory days a century ago. Photo by Carl Swanson

Pleasant Valley Park on the west bank of the Milwaukee River was once one of the city’s most popular beer gardens. Owned by the Blatz brewery and visited by thousands, it featured elaborate landscaping, a restuarant, bandshell, pavilion, steamboat dock, and even a few cottages. Little remains to remind visitors of its glory days a century ago. Photo by Carl Swanson

Pleasant Valley Park, at the foot of East Concordia Avenue on the Milwaukee River, is a peaceful place. The band packed up and left a century ago, about the time the steamboats stopped calling at the park’s dock. A little later, the pavilion, pier, cottages, and bandshell were torn down and the rubble removed. Officially this is a Milwaukee County Park but you wouldn’t know it by looking at it. There are no signs, no parking area, no picnic benches or ball fields, nothing at all to suggest it had ever been anything other than a ravine filled with downed trees and garlic mustard.

But once this was one of Milwaukee’s best-known beer gardens:

“Blatz Park (“Pleasant Valley” before 1892) swarmed with picnickers in those days. Troops of large families from St. Casimir’s Parish, a mile south, regularly followed a makeshift marching band up Humboldt Avenue to the park, each family pulling a coaster wagon containing a picnic lunch. Steam-powered boats, sailing from a dock just above the North Avenue dam, pulled up periodically at the pier and discharged crowds of passengers. The park had a bandshell and later a restaurant. There were also cottages, often rented in the summer, by one account, to actors from a theatre downtown.” – From Riverwest: A Community History, by Tom Tolan, copyright 2003, Past Press, Milwaukee, WI.

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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…)

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.

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Enjoy Milwaukee this Labor Day

Sightseers enjoy all Milwaukee has to offer in this comic postcard from the early 1900s. The vehicle features coin-operated beer dispensers, as well as bins containing schweizer kane, pumpernickel, frankfurter, and sauerkraut. The person who mailed this card in 1907 advised the recipient to "Have a drink on us." Collection of Carl Swanson

Sightseers enjoy all Milwaukee has to offer in this comic postcard from the early 1900s. The vehicle features coin-operated beer dispensers, as well as bins containing schweizer kane, pumpernickel, frankfurter, and sauerkraut. The person who mailed this card in 1907 advised the recipient to “Have a drink on us.” Collection of Carl Swanson

Blue Ribbon memories

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

Although the former Pabst brewery complex in Milwaukee is being converted into a mixed-use development, some of the original buildings remain. Photo illustration by Carl Swanson

When I moved to Milwaukee 25 years ago I did what everyone does. I toured the Pabst Brewery. Because, free beer.

Of course, Pabst Blue Ribbon is not in the same class as Riverwest Stein, but what is?

I arrived five minutes after the day’s last tour had departed, which is pretty much the story of my life. However, the people at the visitor’s center were very nice. A group from Germany had arranged for a private tour but they probably wouldn’t mind me tagging along.

The tour was led by a young woman who was good at her job but rather hampered by the German group’s overbearing leader. The Pabst guide would say one or two sentences then we all stood around for 10 minutes or so to let Mr. Bossy-Britches harangue his merry band of Krauts.

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One nation, united by beer

In 1888, Milwaukee’s Jos. Schlitz Brewing Company distributed this 15 x 26-inch chromolithograph poster. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-DIG-pga-04220 (digital file from original print).

In 1888, Milwaukee’s Jos. Schlitz Brewing Company distributed this 15 x 26-inch chromolithograph poster. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-DIG-pga-04220 (digital file from original print).

According to the caption supplied by the Library of Congress, “the man on the left looks like what Joseph Schlitz might have looked like had he been alive at the time of this advertisement. The other man may be a representative of ‘P.M. Ohmeis & Co.’”

Benjamin Harrison

Benjamin Harrison

Far be it from me to argue with the Library of Congress, but its caption is obviously wrong and kind of weird. “What Joseph Schlitz might have looked like had he been alive at the time.” Really? I guess nothing says, “Drink up!” like an artificially aged dead beer baron.

This broadsheet was printed in 1888, a presidential election year. The man at the left in the poster is the Republican candidate, Benjamin Harrison. The man in the center of the poster is his opponent, the Democrat incumbent president Grover Cleveland.

The Schlitz Brewing Co. was making the humorous point that good beer is one thing everyone can agree on.

Grover Cleveland

Grover Cleveland

Cleveland narrowly won the popular vote that year but Harrison won the electoral college by a substantial majority (233 to 168 votes) and consequently became the 23rd president of the United States.

But don′t shed any tears for Cleveland. He served as president twice. He defeated Harrison four years later, making Cleveland both the 22nd and 24th president – the only one to serve non-consecutive terms in office. You can win a lot of barroom bets knowing that bit of trivia.

The idea of these two hanging out and having a few beverages together is not so far fetched. It rained at Harrison′s inauguration. Outgoing President Cleveland not only attended the ceremony, he held an umbrella over Harrison’s head while he took the oath of office.Carl_sig

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