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.
James S. Buck
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…)
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…)
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…)
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.
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. For example, 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 the Milwaukee River from being partially filled in for a riverside roadway.
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.
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.