Byron Kilbourn

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 founded. A fur trader turned city founder, Juneau was also a friend to the Menomonee Indians, the city’s first mayor, and the father of 17 children. Photo by Carl Swanson

A recent Saturday visit found Juneau Park host to an interesting cross-section of the city. A man admired the view of Lake Michigan from a bench, a couple kissed under the trees one of them recording the moment with a video camera held at arm’s length. At a picnic table a man dressed in many layers of shabby clothing, surrounded by boxes and bags of his belongings, quietly read a newspaper. Three people tossed a Frisbee in an open area. And a strolling couple paused to look at an imposing statue. “Who’s Solomon Juneau?” one asked, reading the name on the pedestal.

Milwaukeeans. Photo by Carl Swanson

Juneau’s memorial accurately depicts his customary garb. The sash shown around his waist was a favorite garment. Vivid red in color, it was a treasured gift from his Indian friends. Photo by Carl Swanson

The short answer: He was a fur trader who turned a lone cabin in the wilderness into a thriving city. He developed the downtown and the East Side parts of the city, He built the first courthouse and donated it to the city. He was Milwaukee’s first mayor and its first postmaster.

And that’s just scratching the surface. He made a massive fortune and lost it all. He had 17 children. When he died, chiefs of the Menomonee Nation served as his pallbearers.

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That which divides us: The legacy of the North Avenue dam 

A postcard from the early 1900s shows the North Avenue dam. The low, red-roofed building on the left bank is the Rohn Swimming School, which operated from the mid-1850s to the 1930s. Collection of Carl Swanson

A postcard from the early 1900s shows the North Avenue dam. The low, red-roofed building on the left bank is the Rohn Swimming School, which operated from the mid-1850s to the 1930s. Collection of Carl Swanson

If you were to pick the one engineering project most instrumental in shaping today’s Milwaukee River, it would have to be the North Avenue dam, which was itself the result of a monumental miscalculation by one of Milwaukee’s founders.

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Once upon a Riverwest crime wave

In the 1850s, a collection of shanties occupied the banks of the Milwaukee River at North Avenue, the inhabitants of which were victims of a series of almost magical thefts. Today, trees have replaced houses and a grocery store occupies the railroad yard that employed the community's residents, but the "red shirt mystery" endures. Photo by Carl Swanson

In the 1850s, a collection of shanties occupied the banks of the Milwaukee River at North Avenue, the inhabitants of which were victims of a series of almost magical thefts. Today, trees have replaced houses and a grocery store occupies the railroad yard that employed the community’s residents, but the “red shirt mystery” endures. Photo by Carl Swanson

Before there was a Pick ’n’  Save at the corner of Humboldt and North in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood there was a railroad yard. Older residents of Riverwest will remember mostly weed-overgrown tracks and the occasional idling diesel locomotive but long ago this was once a point of intense local pride. This was the site, in the mid-1850s, of the main repair shop and roundhouse for Byron Kilbourn’s La Crosse & Milwaukee RR, the second-oldest railroad in Wisconsin.

And here a baffling series of crimes took place. In time a solution was found but the perpetrators were never brought to justice. (more…)