Milwaukee River

Estabrook dam: interesting past, uncertain future

Photo by Rachel Swanson

The fate of the 77-year-old Milwaukee River dam at Estabrook Park will be decided in the coming months. Photo by Rachel Swanson

After years of debate, Milwaukee County is moving closer to a decision concerning its 1937 dam across the Milwaukee River at Estabrook Park and, no matter the outcome, at least some river users are bound to be disappointed. Those who wish to see the Milwaukee River flowing unimpeded argue forcefully for its removal, while others are just as vehement in demanding a new or rebuilt dam.

In 2009, the state Department of Natural Resources, after a long, worried look at the present dam’s condition, ordered Milwaukee County to either fix it by the end of 2014 or remove the dam. The 2009 order also required the dam gates be left permanently open to alleviate stress on the structure. (more…)

In 1901, Riverwest residents battled on the frozen Milwaukee River

Workers cutting ice from the frozen Milwaukee River upstream of the North Avenue bridge in the winter of 1899-1900. The horse in the background is cutting grooves in the ice in an exact grid. Workers break off the ice and load it into one of seven huge Icehouses located between the North Avenue dam and the foot of East Chambers Street. Courtesy Milwaukee Public Library/Historic Photo Collection

Workers cutting ice on Milwaukee River upstream of the North Avenue bridge in the winter of 1899-1900. The horses in the background are plowing deep grooves in the ice in an exact grid. Workers break off the ice and load it into one of four huge icehouses located between the North Avenue dam and Locust Street. Courtesy Milwaukee Public Library/Historic Photo Collection

Enjoy this sample chapter from the new book, Lost Milwaukee, by Milwaukee Notebook blogger Carl Swanson

During the winter of 1900–01, a pitched battle erupted on the frozen Milwaukee River above the North Avenue dam between enraged ice harvesters and the equally violent crew of a steam-powered launch. The newspapers called it “The Ice War.”

On a section of river that has witnessed many strange things over the years, the ice war was perhaps the strangest. If the riot-on-ice aspect wasn’t odd enough, the fighting was accompanied by jaunty music provided by the steamboat’s brass band.

The ice war lasted six weeks, and it was witnessed by hundreds of spectators and heavily reported in the city’s newspapers. Onlookers and reporters thought it hilarious, but real injuries were sustained, working men had their livelihoods threatened and it all had to do with … ice. (more…)

An ignored Estabrook Park artifact hints at early Indian settlement

This large, flat rock in Estabrook Park with its two deep oval-shaped hollows, was thought to have been used by early Native Americans to grind corn. The rock was once quite a historic attraction for the park. It appears to be completely forgotten now. Photo by Carl Swanson

This large, flat rock in Estabrook Park with its two deep oval-shaped hollows was said to have been used by early Native Americans to grind corn. Once this was an important  historic attraction for the park but now has seemingly been forgotten. Photo by Carl Swanson

On May 14, 1952, the Milwaukee Journal printed an article promoting the idea of an automobile trip to various Milwaukee County Parks, including Estabrook. The article advised visitors not to miss an artifact that was then a well-known attraction in the park but today has been forgotten. (more…)

How the 1927 Capitol Drive bridge saved part of the Milwaukee River

Spanning 532 feet and requiring more than 20,000 tons of concrete, the former Capitol Drive bridge over the Milwaukee River was an imposing structure. The bridge was built in 1927. This postcard was mailed in 1946. Carl Swanson collection

Spanning 532 feet and requiring more than 20,000 tons of concrete, the former Capitol Drive bridge over the Milwaukee River was an imposing structure. The bridge was built in 1927. This postcard was mailed in 1946. Carl Swanson collection

Vintage postcards can be odd. Why on earth would a visitor send the folks back home this postcard of the 1927 Capitol Drive bridge?

Before answering that question, there’s a funny thing about this bridge. In a roundabout way, it saved part of the Milwaukee River from being filled in for a riverside roadway.

In summer 1931, four years after this bridge opened, Shorewood started dumping rubble into the river along on the east bank, south of Capitol Drive, with the intention of narrowing the river by 35 feet and building a roadway along the river.

The planned first section extended north from the foot of East Menlo Boulevard, (basically today’s Hubbard Park), under the Capitol Drive bridge, to a junction 300 feet north of the bridge with the Milwaukee County parkway through Estabrook Park.

Shorewood Village Manager Harry Schmitt told the Milwaukee Journal he hoped the city of Milwaukee would soon follow suit and build a river drive of its own connecting the Shorewood portion of the road southward along the water’s edge to Riverside Park and a connection with East Newberry Boulevard.

In 4 to 5 years, he confidently predicted, motorists would be able to cruise alongside the Milwaukee River for several miles. The road, Schmitt added, was the only way to give the public the benefit of the use of the riverbank.

Schmitt clearly believed filling in a big chunk of the river for a new road was completely reasonable and no opposition could arise.

He was mistaken.

The current Capitol Drive bridge is nothing to write home about. On the other hand, if Shorewood's plans had gone through, this picture would have been taken from the middle of a two-lane road. Photo by Carl Swanson

The current Capitol Drive bridge is nothing to write home about. On the other hand, if Shorewood’s plans had gone through, this picture would have been taken from the middle of a two-lane road. Photo by Carl Swanson

Just four days later, Schmitt received a phone call from the state Public Service Commission ordering the village to cease dumping fill in the river. The action followed a joint protest filed with the PSC by Milwaukee city and county officials. They pointed out Shorewood’s village limits extend only to the natural east bank of the Milwaukee River and not to the center of the stream, as might normally be expected where two communities meet at a river. In other words, since the entire width of the riverbed is inside Milwaukee’s city limits, Shorewood was dumping fill outside of its jurisdiction.

Ironically, it was Shorewood’s own action in an earlier dispute that may have doomed its river roadway.

When the 1927 Capitol Drive bridge was in its planning stages (it replaced a spindly steel truss contraption so narrow there was scarcely room for two vehicles to pass), the city of Milwaukee asked Shorewood to share the cost. The village categorically refused, pointing to its founding charter that set the community’s boundary at the water’s edge and included no part of the river itself.

To Shorewood’s dismay, Milwaukee remembered this piece of historical trivia and turned it against the village four years later.

Getting back to the original question: Why were postcard buyers attracted to views of bridges? We usually think of bridges—if we think of them at all—as utilitarian ways to get from here to there.

In 1927 people would have seen things differently. The new Capitol Drive really was a marvel. Not because it cost a jaw-dropping $400,000 in pre-depression dollars and not because it took 20,000 tons of cement to build, but because it connected the entire north side of Milwaukee with the entire North Shore by way of an impressively long, wide, and elegant piece of engineering.

They were seeing the big picture. That’s certainly worth the price of a postcard, even if all you could fit on the back is, “Having a great time in Milwaukee, wish you were here.”

Carl Swanson is the author of the book Lost Milwaukee from The History Press, available from book stores or online.

Photo Friday: River reflections

Dividing the heavily populated East Side from the just as heavily populated Riverwest neighborhood is the Milwaukee River looking much as it did when Native Americans were the only residents. How cool is that? Especially when you recall this stretch through Cambridge Woods Park was part of a planned but never-built four-lane riverside parkway. Shorewood residents were instrumental in fighting that project to a standstill back in the 1970s. Photo by Carl Swanson

Dividing the heavily populated East Side from the just as heavily populated Riverwest neighborhood is the Milwaukee River looking, in places, much as it did when Native Americans were the only area residents. Its survival in a relatively natural state is pretty amazing when you think about it, especially when you recall this stretch through Cambridge Woods Park was part of a planned but never-built four-lane riverside parkway. To their eternal credit, Shorewood residents were instrumental in fighting this ill-advised proposal to a standstill back in the 1970s. Photo by Carl Swanson

A Milwaukee River art walk

Graffiti on an crumbling foundation wall along the east bank of the Milwaukee River, north of Locust Street. Photo by Carl Swanson

Graffiti on an crumbling foundation wall along the east bank of the Milwaukee River, north of Locust Street. Photo by Carl Swanson

Most graffiti is woefully lacking artistic vision executed with a profound lack of technique. Of course much the same can be said of the sculptures this city has scattered around its parks. Every once in a while, one runs across graffiti that’s pretty striking.

The painter has a nice touch, the shading of the sin tones is nicely done. It appears the woman's blue dress and the man's white pants were added later and much more carelessly. Photo by Carl Swanson

The shading of the skin tones is carefully done but it appears the woman’s dress was added later and more hastily. Photo by Carl Swanson

Consider this painting found along the east bank of the Milwaukee River, just north of the Locust Street bridge, in a fairly narrow space between the bank and the river itself, are a series of shattered foundations in the weeds. There was once a thriving neighborhood here.

On one of the foundation walls, someone created a fairly advanced piece of artwork. The pose is striking and the dove between the outstretched hands is an interesting touch. It appears the man and woman were originally nude and someone subsequently painted the pants and the dress. Perhaps there was the thought nudity might result in the wall being swiftly painted over, while clothed figures would more likely be left alone.

Leaving the painting alone seems like a good plan. It’s not as though an ancient concrete  foundation from a long-gone building would be any kind of adornment to the community if left bare. Unfortunately, lesser-talents have since added quite a few random blotches and spray-painted squiggles. For the unknown painter of the original, it must be annoying to pull off something nice, only to have others add their crude touches.

 

From landmark to landfill: The 1921 North Avenue Viaduct

North Avenue Bridge, Milwaukee

The North Avenue viaduct opened to traffic in 1921. The 1,385-foot-long reinforced concrete bridge was designed by Marquette University professor James C. Pinney and included large public restrooms at either end and “detailed neoclassical ornamentation,” all long gone when this photograph was taken in 1987. Photo courtesy Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, HAER, Reproduction number HAER WIS,40-MILWA,51–1

Completed in 1921, the 1,385-foot-long North Avenue Viaduct was the fourth bridge at this location and certainly the most beautiful. Using state-of-the-art (for its era) construction techniques, the reinforced concrete bridge featured large public comfort stations (restrooms) at either end, along with “detailed neoclassical ornamentation,” such as railings supported by 3,000 concrete balusters, the casting of which was the full-time occupation of seven workers during the bridge’s two-year construction.

Deterioration was evident as the bridge entered the 1980s and so was the lasting elegance of its design. Photo courtesy Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, HAER, Reproduction number HAER WIS,40-MILWA,51--2

Deterioration was evident as the bridge entered the 1980s and so was the elegance of its design. Photo courtesy Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, HAER, Reproduction number HAER WIS,40-MILWA,51–2

But seven decades of wear and tear can claim even an engineering masterpiece. In 1984, the Public Works Department decided the old viaduct was beyond repair and started planning its replacement. Projects of this magnitude take time, and by 1987 increasingly worried city officials had shored up parts of the viaduct with timber, banned vehicles over 10 tons, and were conducting weekly inspections.

In 1988 Milwaukee newspapers ran a legal notice from the city offering to sell the bridge on the condition the buyer disassemble the 1,385-foot-long structure, rebuild it elsewhere, and maintain it forever. To sweeten the deal, the city offered to pay up to $1.3 million of the relocation costs. This would be, mused Milwaukee Sentinel reporter Amy Rinard in the June 30, 1988 edition, an opportunity to own a piece of Milwaukee history – a really big piece. Her story also noted the offer of sale was a legal formality mandated by the viaduct’s status as a registered historic landmark. City officials quoted in the paper spelled out the obvious: It would be impossible to move the bridge.

(more…)

Riverside Park: a dream, a long decline, and a bright future

Milwaukee's Riverside Park was designed in the 1890s by Frederick Law Olmsted, the pioneering landscape designer who was also responsible for Lake and Washington parks in Milwaukee, Central Park in Manhattan, and much more. Only traces of Olmsted's plan remain.

Milwaukee’s Riverside Park was designed in the 1890s by Frederick Law Olmsted, the pioneering landscape designer who was also responsible for Lake and Washington parks in Milwaukee, Central Park in Manhattan, and much more. Only traces of Olmsted’s plan remain.

Frederick Law Olmsted (the designer of, among other things, Manhattan’s Central Park), also left a lasting mark on Milwaukee. In the 1890s his landscape architectural firm designed three Milwaukee County Parks; Lake Park, River Park (called Riverside after 1900), and West Park (renamed Washington Park).

The plan called for Lake and River parks to be united by an elegant boulevard, today’s East Newberry Boulevard. While Lake Park and Washington Park ultimately came fairly close to Olmsted’s vision, development of River Park was never fully completed, although some key features were built, and can be seen today – if you know where to look.

(more…)

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]