Downtown Milwaukee

Gertie the Duck

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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.

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Five favorites for Doors Open Milwaukee

Doors Open Milwaukee was held Saturday and Sunday, September 19th and 20th. About 200 locations, many normally closed to the public, were open for visitors. Here are five of my favorite places to visit during this annual event.

1. Former Pabst Brewery

Although the area is undergoing rapid development, some of the original Pabst buildings remain. Photo illustration by Carl Swanson

Although the area is undergoing rapid redevelopment, some of the original Pabst buildings remain. Photo by Carl Swanson

Tour a speakeasy (actually, the former plant infirmary and ancient storage tunnels) at the Best Place at the Historic Pabst Brewery, 901 W. Juneau Ave. The speakeasy is open if the red jelly jar light is illuminated at the doorway marked “J.C. Haertel Real Estate & Financial Consulting.” The Pabst Brewing Co. was the subject of this Milwaukee Notebook post. (more…)

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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Sculpture in downtown Milwaukee is an overlooked masterpiece

"Victorious Charge" is the name of the sculpture on Wisconsin Avenue near the Central Library. It memorializes the courage and sacrifice of Wisconsin soldiers in the Civil War. Photo by John Swanson

“Victorious Charge” is the name of the 1898 sculpture on Wisconsin Avenue near the Central Library. It memorializes the courage and sacrifice of Wisconsin soldiers in the Civil War. Photo by John Swanson

Milwaukeeans love to despise the city’s public art. From David Middlebrook’s deliberately lopsided Tip in Gordon Park to Gerald P. Sawyer’s Bronze Fonz on the downtown Riverwalk, just about every sculpture in town has its share of detractors.

Even in Milwaukee a piece of public art can occasionally resonate with nearly everyone. For example, the sculpture in the above photo was immediately embraced by art critics and the public alike at its unveiling in 1898. According to the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War it is the state’s most important Civil War monument of the 19th century and among the finest-ever monuments dedicated to the memory of the Civil War soldier. And if you live in Milwaukee you almost certainly have passed it many times, perhaps without really noticing it.  (more…)

Milwaukee Road’s hometown depot

The downtown Milwaukee depot built by hometown railroad The Milwaukee Road stood at the south end of Zeidler Union Square Park. Today the site is occupied by a WE Energies office building. Collection of Carl Swanson

The downtown Milwaukee depot built by hometown railroad The Milwaukee Road stood at the south end of Zeidler Union Square Park. Today the site is occupied by a WE Energies office building. Collection of Carl Swanson

Continuing our railroad theme (see entry on the Beer Line in Riverwest, the lake front depot, and Milwaukee’s first high-speed trains), today we take a look at the downtown Milwaukee Everett Street Station, also called Union Station, built by the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific RR, better known as The Milwaukee Road.

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Someone has a case of the Mondays

In 1942, photographer Jack Delano snapped this image of employees of Western Fuel Commpany having lunch in their locker room at the firm's Seventeenth Street Coal Dock office. It's December 1942, and World War II has been going on for a year. Somehow one feels they are waiting for the photographer to leave so they can resume the poker game. Photo courtesy Farm Security Administration - Office of War Information Photograph Collection (Library of Congress), [reproduction number, LC-USW3- 020002-D [P&P] LOT 214]

In December 1942, photographer Jack Delano snapped this image of employees of Milwaukee’s Western Fuel Company having lunch in their locker room at the firm’s Seventeenth Street Coal Dock office. Somehow one feels they are waiting for the photographer to leave so they can resume the poker game. Photo courtesy Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information Photograph Collection (Library of Congress), [reproduction number, LC-USW3- 020002-D [P&P] LOT 214]

Photo Friday: Downtown, 1901

Flashback Friday: Downtown Milwaukee, 1901

In 1901, a photographer from the Detroit Publishing Company captured this view of the Milwaukee River in downtown Milwaukee from Sycamore Street (now West Michigan Avenue). Much has changed in 113 years, but in middle distance you can see what City Hall looks like without its modern crust of semi-permanent scaffolding. Photo courtesy Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection, [reproduction number, e.g., LC-D4-10865]