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…)


Milwaukee’s lost business district

Fine buildings are reminders of a once-prosperous business district. Carl A. Swanson photo

Fine buildings are reminders of a prosperous business district. Carl A. Swanson photo

The six blocks of Martin Luther King Drive between Burleigh Street and Keefe Avenue are like many on Milwaukee’s north side. There are churches and liquor stores. There is a public school and a private choice program school. There are vacant buildings and vacant lots.

There is nothing to show this street’s history extends back hundreds of years to Wisconsin’s first inhabitants.

Buses, bikes, and forgetfulness

Since 2009, all Milwaukee County Transit System buses feature front-mounted bicycle racks. Users simply fold them down, secure their bikes, and, often, forget they're there. Carl A. Swanson photo

Milwaukee County Transit System buses feature front-mounted bicycle racks. Users simply fold them down, secure their bikes, and, quite often, forget they put them there. Carl A. Swanson photo

In 2009, all Milwaukee County Transit System buses received front-mounted bike racks. The racks are extremely popular – more than 100,000 bikes are carried each year. Although it hardly seems possible, it’s quite common for a bus to return to its depot at the end of the day with a forgotten bike on its rack. Last year about 120 bikes were lost, an average of one every three days.

Most are reunited with owners. Strangely, some never call to retrieve their bicycles. What happens to those?


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 landmark church in Shorewood turns 100

Luther Memorial Chapel, Shorewood

Establishing this Shorewood church took an unusually persistent man. Luther Memorial Chapel in Shorewood marks its 100th anniversary in 2016. Carl A. Swanson photo

Slightly built and bespectacled, 30-year-old Rev. Theodore Kissling had already lived an adventurous life when his church’s mission board asked him, in 1914, to organize a congregation in the fast-growing community that would become Shorewood.

That church, Luther Memorial Chapel, 3833 N. Maryland Ave., marks its 100th anniversary this spring. Oddly, both its choir and Sunday School are older than the congregation itself. Understanding how this happened involves twists, turns, setbacks – and a young pastor who overcame them all.


Red Arrow: The park that moved

"Red Arrow" division insignia

Since the 1920s, Milwaukee has had a park dedicated to local soldiers who fought with the 32nd Red Arrow division of the U.S. Army. The 8-foot-tall divisional insignia was added in 1984. Carl Swanson photo

Milwaukee has always considered park names open to change. The strip of greenery in the median in front of Central Library, for instance, was once Washington Park. The present-day Washington Park was originally West Park. Pere Marquette Park is along the downtown riverfront, formerly it was several blocks south and in front of the Milwaukee Road station. The station is gone, but there is still a park – now called Zeidler Union Square.

And then there is the strange history of Red Arrow Park.


“Marriages Solemnized Here”

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

If there was such a thing as Milwaukee’s love boat, it was this. In the 1890s, the excursion steamer Christopher Columbus carried hundreds of couples from Chicago to Milwaukee at a time when the law allowed quick marriages for runaway lovers. Carl Swanson collection

In the 1890s, as a Milwaukee Journal article of the time put it, the State of Wisconsin might as well be called the State of Matrimony. Couples flocked here to take advantage of laws allowing immediate weddings – no license, no waiting period, and hardly any questions asked.

On any given day, the Goodrich Transportation Co. excursion steamer Christopher Columbus was sure to have a few eager couples boarding at Chicago for the trip to Milwaukee.When those couples sat down for a meal they would find advertisements on the ship′s menu from Milwaukee justices of the peace offering special deals for the marriage minded.

One minister frequently rode the Christopher Columbus to Chicago so he would be in position to talk up his brand of instant marriage on the return trip to Milwaukee. A local justice had a large sign on his downtown office, “Marriages Solemnized Here.”


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.


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.