Milwaukee River

Milwaukee: Beautiful then and now

In places, the Milwaukee River still looks much as it did when Native Americans were the only residents. Photo by Carl Swanson

In places the Milwaukee River still looks much as it did when Native Americans were the only residents. Photo by Carl Swanson

James S. Buck was one of Milwaukee’s first white settlers. In his later years, he wrote a four-volume history of the founding and growth of the city. In the following passage, Buck describes the land as it was when he encountered it, when the area was still part of Michigan Territory.

 This description will, I think, give a very correct idea of the appearance of Milwaukee in a state of nature. To say that it was simply beautiful does not express it; it was more than beautiful – those bluffs, so round and bold, covered with just sufficient timber to shade them well, and from whose tops could be seen the lake extending beyond the reach of human vision, while between them ran the river, like a silver thread; not the filthy sewer it is today, but a clear stream, in which the Indian could detect and spear fish at the depth of 12 and even 18 feet, and upon whose surface sparkled the rays of the morning sun, as upon a mirror. No wonder it had received the appellation of the Beautiful Land. I certainly have never seen a more beautiful spot upon the entire lakeshore. Yea, and it is beautiful today, but its beauty today and in 1836 are different. The former was the work of God, the latter of man. – A Pioneer History of Milwaukee, From the First American Settlement in 1833 to 1841, James S. Buck, Swain & Tate publishers, 1890. 

Carl_sig

 

James S. Buck

James S. Buck

Advertisements

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 1911, Kern Park housed tuberculosis patients

Photo by Carl Swanson

Once the summer retreat of the wealthy Kern family, Kern Park in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood was briefly the site of a tuberculosis hospital. During the winter of 1911, patients were housed in tents erected in the park. Photo by Carl Swanson

Tuberculosis isn’t particularly feared today but in the 19th century it caused more deaths than any other disease. If you were living a century ago, you probably were inflected by the tuberculosis bacillus. Between 70 and 90 percent of Europeans and Americans were infected and in some major cities the rate was closer to 100 percent. If your infection happened to develop into active tuberculosis – often called “consumption”– you had a 20 percent chance of surviving the illness. It was a terrifying and deadly epidemic.

The flood of desperately sick people stressed city health care systems to the breaking point. So much so that, if you became ill in Milwaukee around 1911, you may have been hospitalized in a temporary “sanatorium” located in Kern Park in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood.

(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

In the winter of 1900-1901, 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.

As if the riot-on-ice aspect wasn’t odd enough, the fighting was accompanied by jaunty music provided by a brass band aboard the launch. (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…)

A boat named “Killjoy” cracked down on river romance in 1921

One of the earliest Milwaukee Police river patrol boats is shown at speed on the Milwaukee River north of the North Avenue Viaduct. This is probably the first of series of police boats, all named the Killjoy. Milwaukee Journal photo, Historic Photo Collection/Milwaukee Public Library

One of the earliest Milwaukee Police river patrol boats is shown at speed on the Milwaukee River north of the North Avenue Viaduct. This sleek craft is probably the first of series of police boats, all named the Killjoy. Milwaukee Journal photo, Historic Photo Collection/Milwaukee Public Library

Canoodling canoeists, riverbank lotharios, and skinny-dippers here, there, and everywhere. By the 1920s it’s no wonder local newspapers had taken to calling the Milwaukee River between North Avenue and Capitol Drive “Petters’ Paradise.” With public complaints soaring in the summer of 1921, Milwaukee Police decided it was time to put a damper on the watery lasciviousness.

(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 picture 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.

(more…)

Estabrook Park’s forgotten swimming beach

Built along a bend in the Milwaukee River, the swimming beach at Estabrook Park was a popular place to cool off on a hot day. The river is unusually wide here because the river bed was heavily quarried more than a century ago, creating a deep man-made lake known as the "blue hole." Photo by Carl Swanson

Built along a bend in the Milwaukee River, the swimming beach at Estabrook Park was a popular place to cool off on a hot day. The beach was abandoned almost 70 years ago. Photo by Carl Swanson

Estabrook Park, on the east side of the Milwaukee River north of Capitol Drive, has much to offer. There is a disc golf course, a popular dog exercise area, and an even more popular beer garden. The swimming beach, however, has been closed for nearly 70 years.

In other news: There was a swimming beach at Estabrook Park.

(more…)

River Colony, Milwaukee’s lost neighborhood

River Colony foundation

Only foundations remain of River Colony, a former neighborhood of a half-dozen year-round homes on the east bank of the Milwaukee River on the north side of the Locust Street bridge. The homes faced the water. Immediately to their rear the river bank climbed steeply to a railroad cut made by the Chicago & North Western Railway (today’s Oak Leaf Trail). East of the railroad tracks, the ground again rose steeply to Cambridge Avenue, about forty feet above the colony. Photo by Carl Swanson

Just north of the Locust Street bridge, Cambridge Woods Park narrows considerably squeezed between the Milwaukee River and the Oak Leaf Trail. Here the walking path passes a number of tightly spaced crumbling concrete foundations, some covered with graffiti, some barely more than rubble amid the weeds and wildflowers.

You are walking across the doorsteps of River Colony and in its day this was one of the most unusual neighborhoods in Milwaukee.

(more…)

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