Milwaukee County Parks

Estabrook dam: interesting past, uncertain future

Photo by Rachel Swanson

The fate of the 77-year-old Milwaukee River dam at Estabrook Park will be decided in the coming months. Photo by Rachel Swanson

After years of debate, Milwaukee County is moving closer to a decision concerning its 1937 dam across the Milwaukee River at Estabrook Park and, no matter the outcome, at least some river users are bound to be disappointed. Those who wish to see the Milwaukee River flowing unimpeded argue forcefully for its removal, while others are just as vehement in demanding a new or rebuilt dam.

In 2009, the state Department of Natural Resources, after a long, worried look at the present dam’s condition, ordered Milwaukee County to either fix it by the end of 2014 or remove the dam. The 2009 order also required the dam gates be left permanently open to alleviate stress on the structure. (more…)

The man who started Milwaukee

Solomon Juneau stands on the shore of Lake Michigan and looks across the city he founded. The first permanent white settler of the city, Juneau was also a friend to the Menomonee Indians, the city's first mayor, and the father of 15 children. Photo by Carl Swanson
Solomon Juneau stands on the shore of Lake Michigan and looks across the city he established. A fur trader turned city founder, Juneau was also a friend to the Menomonee Indians, the city’s first mayor, and the father of a dozen children. Photo by Carl Swanson

Enjoy this sample chapter from the book, Lost Milwaukee, by Carl Swanson, published by the History Press.

One recent day in Milwaukee’s Juneau Park, a strolling couple paused to look at an imposing statue. Reading the name on the pedestal, one asked, “Who’s Solomon Juneau?”

The short answer is he was a fur trader who turned a cabin in the wilderness into a thriving city. He developed the downtown and the East Side. He donated land and materials for the first courthouse. He was Milwaukee’s first postmaster, its first village president and, when the city was incorporated, its first mayor.

Juneau made a fortune and lost practically everything. He made many friends and kept them all. The pallbearers in his funeral procession included four chiefs of the Menomonee Nation.

This founder of Milwaukee was French Canadian, born near Montreal, Canada, on August 9, 1793. (He became a U.S. citizen in 1831.)

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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

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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.

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In 1931, frisky Milwaukeeans flocked to Kern Park’s lovers’ lane

This early 1900s postcard shows Milwaukee's "lover's lane." The card was mailed by a man named Albert to a Miss Evaline Beecher of Sauk City and reads, "Ain't this a nice place to spoon. This is Eva waiting for Al." Let's hope it worked out for those crazy kids, 106 years ago. Carl Swanson collection

This early 1900s postcard shows Milwaukee’s “lover’s lane.” The card was mailed by a man named Albert to a Miss Evaline Beecher of Sauk City and reads, “Ain’t this a nice place to spoon. This is Eva waiting for Al.” Let’s hope it worked out for those crazy kids, 106 years ago. Carl Swanson collection

The Milwaukee Notebook has a few loose pages, minor items that don’t amount to much in the life of a city but are still worth mentioning. Here’s an example: In its August 19, 1931 edition, the Milwaukee Sentinel reported:

Lovers’ lane in Kern Park is doomed. That dark, alluring walk under the trees beside the Milwaukee River – illuminated by no more than the moon – won’t be that way much longer.

A thousand dollars worth of lights are to be strung along the walk the park board has decided. It approved a recommendation by Al Riemenschneider, park engineer, to include that sum in next year’s budget.

“We need the lights from a moral standpoint,” explained Otto Spidel, acting park superintendent.

I checked the other day. The lights are no longer there. However, I didn’t see any lovers either so, from a ‘moral standpoint,’ we must be behaving ourselves these days.

Eighty years ago, this riverside pathway in Milwaukee's Kern Park had a naughty reputation. Carl Swanson photo

Eighty years ago, this riverside pathway in Milwaukee’s Kern Park had a naughty reputation. Carl Swanson photo

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Estabrook Park’s forgotten swimming beach

Built along a bend in the Milwaukee River, the swimming beach at Estabrook Park was a popular place to cool off on a hot day. The river is unusually wide here because the river bed was heavily quarried more than a century ago, creating a deep man-made lake known as the "blue hole." Photo by Carl Swanson
Built along a bend in the Milwaukee River, the swimming beach at Estabrook Park was a popular place to cool off on a hot day. The beach was abandoned almost 70 years ago. Photo by Carl Swanson

Estabrook Park, on the east side of the Milwaukee River north of Capitol Drive, has much to offer. There is a disc golf course, a popular dog exercise area, and an even more popular beer garden. The swimming beach, however, has been closed for nearly 70 years.

In other news: There was a swimming beach at Estabrook Park.

Even on a hot day, most people would hesitate before jumping into the Milwaukee River, but the river was once enormously popular for swimming. Kletzsch, Estabrook, and Gordon parks had swimming areas and there were at least three private swim schools located near the North Avenue dam. Gordon Park, with its beautiful bathing house, is fairly well-known among long-time Milwaukeeans but Estabrook Park’s beach is nearly forgotten.

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Riverside Park: a dream, a long decline, and a bright future

Milwaukee's Riverside Park was designed in the 1890s by Frederick Law Olmsted, the pioneering landscape designer who was also responsible for Lake and Washington parks in Milwaukee, Central Park in Manhattan, and much more. Only traces of Olmsted's plan remain.

Milwaukee’s Riverside Park was designed in the 1890s by Frederick Law Olmsted, the pioneering landscape designer who was also responsible for Lake and Washington parks in Milwaukee, Central Park in Manhattan, and much more. Only traces of Olmsted’s plan remain.

Frederick Law Olmsted (the designer of, among other things, Manhattan’s Central Park), also left a lasting mark on Milwaukee. In the 1890s his landscape architectural firm designed three Milwaukee County Parks; Lake Park, River Park (called Riverside after 1900), and West Park (renamed Washington Park).

The plan called for Lake and River parks to be united by an elegant boulevard, today’s East Newberry Boulevard. While Lake Park and Washington Park ultimately came fairly close to Olmsted’s vision, development of River Park was never fully completed, although some key features were built, and can be seen today – if you know where to look.

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