Milwaukee River

Milwaukee’s Bridge War

The Wisconsin Avenue bridge across the Milwaukee River as it appeared in the 1870s. Note how the East and West side streets do not line up. Carl A. Swanson collection

In 1845, an argument over who should pay for civic improvements escalated to the point that a cannon was wheeled out to threaten the west side of town with artillery fire. The dispute ended in the wrecking of most of the bridges in town.

They called it the Bridge War. (more…)


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…)

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…)

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.

Riverwest’s hidden landmark

Milwaukee River Pumping Station

This brick structure on the bank of the Milwaukee River in Riverwest is part of the city’s water utility. When it entered service in 1924, its massive pumps set a world record. Carl A. Swanson photo

On a stretch of the Milwaukee River once home to both ice houses and a lost neighborhood, only one structure remains – a five-story-tall, windowless brick building. Although well maintained and surrounded by neatly mown lawn, no sign identifies it and its purpose isn’t immediately obvious.

Here, at the foot of East Chambers Street in Riverwest, the city built a record-setting engineering landmark. This 92-year-old building is the Milwaukee Water Works Riverside Pumping Station. (more…)

Gertie the Duck


A statue of Gertie the Duck stands guard over her ducklings on a Wisconsin Avenue bridge pier, seventy-one years after the real Gertie hatched her young on the bridge and captured national attention. Carl A. Swanson photo

The story of Gertie, a mallard duck who hatched her eggs on a bridge piling in the heart of downtown, is a familiar one to many Milwaukeeans. Updates on the duck’s activities front-page news for a full month in spring of 1945. She was featured on the cover of Life magazine, profiled in Reader’s Digest, and was the subject of a prime-time television show in 1963. Last but not least, a children’s book retelling the story of Gertie sold more than a million copies.

To understand the impact a small, wild duck made on the city, you have to turn the clock back 71 years.


A river made for recreation

Canoes crowd the Milwaukee River at Gordon Park

Canoes crowd the Milwaukee River at Gordon Park on a fine summer day in the early 1900s. Judging by the spectators lining the railing of the Folsom (now Locust) bridge, an aquatic contest is about to take place. Carl Swanson collection

The North Avenue dam, built in 1843, divided the Milwaukee River into an industrialized lower river through downtown to the harbor and a relatively untouched upper river, which became a center for recreation for the growing city. Here, from the late 1800s to World War I, you could take a steamboat from North Avenue up the river to visit a beer garden or an amusement park. For the more energetic, there were businesses at both ends of the North Avenue bridge renting canoes and row boats by the hour or by the day.

And there were boat clubs. A newspaper article from 1912 listed 20 boat clubs on the upper river with a membership of around 300. The clubs had names like White Squadron, Pleasant Valley, La Fa Lot, Sun Set, and Shady Nook. If the article had been written a few years earlier, it would have included the Daphne Boat Club.


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.


New park has an industrial past

National Brake and Electric factory

National Brake and Electric Co. employed more than 1,000 people in its massive plant south of Riverside Park on Milwaukee’s East Side. The site is now the Rotary Centennial Arboretum Park. Photo courtesy Milwaukee County Historical Society

Rotary Centennial Arboretum, south of Riverside Park, is the newest of the city’s chain of Milwaukee River parks. Opened in 2013 at a cost of $8.5 million, it is managed by the Urban Ecology Center. It has nearly four miles of trails, outdoor learning areas for school groups, and extensive plantings of native trees, shrubs, wildflowers, grasses and sedges.

Most visitors are unaware the park sits atop a specially trucked-in two-foot-thick layer of clean soil that isolates and safely contains the lead, arsenic, and other toxic compounds that saturate the original soil.

The contaminates are about all that remains of one of city’s largest industrial concerns. Established on the willow-shaded east bank of the Milwaukee River in 1901, the plant grew rapidly until it employed 1,400 workers and included four main buildings, a large machine shop, a foundry turning out more than 1,000 tons of castings a month, an office building, and numerous smaller structures.

And then it was over. The vast factory complex fell silent after just 30 years. This is the story of National Brake & Electric Co. (more…)

Safe haven for deserters

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The Water Street store of Ludington, Birchard and Co., where trigger-happy Army officers were not welcome. Illustration from James S. Buck’s Pioneer History of Milwaukee.

In his Pioneer History of Milwaukee, early settler James S. Buck notes the fledgling city became a safe-haven for U.S. Army deserters in the 1830s.

In those years, Buck wrote, the existence of hell as a punishment for the wicked in the hereafter was much debated among theologians but an earthly hell, “certainly as far as the common soldiers were concerned,” was a reality. It was in Portage, Wis., and it was called Fort Winnebago.