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…)