Milwaukee maritime

Steamboat days on the Milwaukee River

The Whittaker was one of several steam-powered excursion boats plying the upper Milwaukee River in the late 1800s. Carl A. Swanson collection

In 1835, Byron Kilbourn, the developer of the west side of the city, built a dam across the Milwaukee River south of North Avenue. A log structure filled with earth and gravel, the dam was 480 feet long and 18 feet tall. It was designed to ensure a steady flow of water for a canal.

The canal was supposed to connect Milwaukee with the Mississippi River but financial troubles halted construction after a single mile had been dug. But Kilbourn’s dam changed the river – and the city – in ways he could not have imagined. (more…)


Flambeau: The little engine that couldn’t

Flambeau Motors factory

This brick building at 245 E. Keefe Ave., formerly housed Flambeau Motors, a maker of outboard engines. The company lasted about 10 years and made interesting, if quirky, lightweight aluminum motors that are today collector items. Carl Swanson photo

Wisconsin has led the outboard motor industry ever since Ole Evinrude fired up his prototype engine on the Kinnickinnic River in 1909. In the years following World War II, Wisconsin outboard makers manufactured half the motors sold in the United States.

With the easing of wartime manufacturing restrictions in 1945, a new company on Milwaukee′s near north side was ready to earn a place in a market dominated by established brands. Metal Products Corp., 245 E. Keefe Ave., was late to the game but confident its lightweight and innovative Flambeau outboard motor would be a hit as the country turned its attention from war to recreation.


Testing outboards in Riverwest

The concrete footings of the Evinrude outboard motor testing facility can still be seen on the west bank of the Milwaukee River, near the foot of East Wright Street. Carl Swanson photo

The concrete footings of the Evinrude outboard motor testing facility can still be seen on the west bank of the Milwaukee River, near the foot of East Wright Street. Carl Swanson photo

There are reminders of the past everywhere along the upper Milwaukee River. For example, you can still see traces of the testing facility of Evinrude outboard motors on the west side of the river between East Wright and East Meinecke streets.

If these pieces of aged concrete could speak … well, they might tell you about the time Ole Evinrude made an ice cream run.


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

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.

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 118, 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 118 strenuous years, the same tug is still at work in Milwaukee, 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.


Disaster on the Milwaukee River


The “Christopher Columbus” heads upstream to its dock just south of Michigan Street. Backing downstream required the aid of a pair of tugboats. Collection of Carl Swanson

On the last day of June 1917, the excursion steamship Christopher Columbus cast off from the Goodrich Transportation dock on the Milwaukee River, just south of the Michigan Street bridge. A familiar visitor, the 362-foot boat made a daily round trip in warm-weather months between Chicago and Milwaukee. Licensed to carry 4,000 passengers, today’s load was an unusually light one – a group of 200 students from the University of Chicago along with about 200 other passengers.

University student Emma Taylor, one of the passengers, looked down at the dirty river and remarked to her friend, “I should hate to have to bathe in that water.”

Moments later, the Columbus was in ruins, 16 passengers were dead, and 20 others injured. And Emma Taylor, with broken ribs, a lacerated scalp, and unable to swim, was sinking in the filthy river, her heavy clothing dragging her to the bottom.

Incredibly, the Columbus, one of largest and most elegant ships of its time, operated by a safety-minded company, and captained by one of the most respected masters on the Great Lakes, had collided with a Third Ward factory.


Milwaukee’s favorite lake trip


The Christopher Columbus brings another load of tourists to Milwaukee in this vintage postcard view. Carl Swanson collection

The elegant steamship Christopher Columbus operated a popular summer excursion run between Chicago and Milwaukee from 1894 to 1931. Longer than a football field and licensed to carry 4,000 passengers, the Columbus averaged 2,500 people per trip – mostly Chicagoans wishing to sample the delights of Milwaukee during the boat’s two-hour layover in the Cream City.

A crew of 170 operated the ship and looked after the passengers. The Christopher Columbus was fitted with electric lighting, oak paneling, velvet carpets, etched glass windows, leather furniture, and marble countertops. Skylights illuminated the promenade, which contained several fountains and an aquarium filled with Great Lakes fish. The ship had several shops, restaurants, a full orchestra, and a dance floor that accommodated 500 couples. The Columbus also featured several large clubrooms for organizations wishing to hold meetings aboard ship.


The spectacular defiance of Captain Bodenlos

Expert ship handling, icy contempt for petty bureaucrats, and a flair for the dramatic made steamship Captain E.J. Bodenlos a local hero in 1934.

Expert ship handling, icy contempt for petty bureaucrats, and a flair for the dramatic made Captain E.J. Bodenlos a local hero in 1934.

In summer 1934, tugboat crews in Milwaukee went on strike. But what started as a minor labor dispute became front page news with a steamship captain’s spectacular act of civil disobedience.

Before it was over, the dapper captain (he favored panama hats and kid gloves) had threatened to throw a police officer in the river and, two nights in a row, had evaded a cordon of authorities in order to take in a movie. For a grand finale, he treated a cheering crowd of thousands to a magnificent display of boat handling. (more…)