Riverwest Neighborhood

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.

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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…)

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.

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In 1931, frisky Milwaukeeans flocked to Kern Park’s lovers’ lane

This early 1900s postcard shows Milwaukee's "lover's lane." The card was mailed by a man named Albert to a Miss Evaline Beecher of Sauk City and reads, "Ain't this a nice place to spoon. This is Eva waiting for Al." Let's hope it worked out for those crazy kids, 106 years ago. Carl Swanson collection

This early 1900s postcard shows Milwaukee’s “lover’s lane.” The card was mailed by a man named Albert to a Miss Evaline Beecher of Sauk City and reads, “Ain’t this a nice place to spoon. This is Eva waiting for Al.” Let’s hope it worked out for those crazy kids, 106 years ago. Carl Swanson collection

The Milwaukee Notebook has a few loose pages, minor items that don’t amount to much in the life of a city but are still worth mentioning. Here’s an example: In its August 19, 1931 edition, the Milwaukee Sentinel reported:

Lovers’ lane in Kern Park is doomed. That dark, alluring walk under the trees beside the Milwaukee River – illuminated by no more than the moon – won’t be that way much longer.

A thousand dollars worth of lights are to be strung along the walk the park board has decided. It approved a recommendation by Al Riemenschneider, park engineer, to include that sum in next year’s budget.

“We need the lights from a moral standpoint,” explained Otto Spidel, acting park superintendent.

I checked the other day. The lights are no longer there. However, I didn’t see any lovers either so, from a ‘moral standpoint,’ we must be behaving ourselves these days.

Eighty years ago, this riverside pathway in Milwaukee's Kern Park had a naughty reputation. Carl Swanson photo

Eighty years ago, this riverside pathway in Milwaukee’s Kern Park had a naughty reputation. Carl Swanson photo

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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

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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Harambee gets a Superfund site

Vacant since 2008, this industrial building at 3456 N. Buffum St., at the northern end of the Beerline recreational trail contains a variety of hazardous substances and will be cleaned-up under the EPA's Superfund program. Photo by Carl Swanson

Vacant since 2008, this industrial building at 3456 N. Buffum St., at the northern end of the Beer Line Recreational Trail contains a variety of hazardous substances and will be cleaned-up under the EPA’s Superfund program. Photo by Carl Swanson

The Environmental Protection Agency has determined hazardous waste inside a vacant industrial building at the northern end of the Beer Line recreational trail qualifies for a “time-critical removal action”  under the federal Superfund law.

The century-old three-story building at 3456 N. Buffum St., has seen many industrial uses over the years, everything from a casket maker to a company marketing a hangover remedy, but has been vacant since 2008 and is in an advanced state of disrepair.

The EPA inspected the property in early spring and its tests revealed a number of contaminants including lead, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), chlorinated solvents, waste oil, flammable and corrosive materials, and asbestos. Since the hazards are apparent and the property owner is unable to conduct the necessary cleanup, the EPA has decided the building warrants a Superfund designation, clearing the way for immediate action funded by taxpayer money.

Starting June 11th, contractors will begin removing substances deemed an imminent threat to safety. The EPA believes the problems are confined to the interior of the building and said surrounding residents are not at risk. As a precaution, the EPA will monitor air samples throughout the two-month cleanup project to ensure residents are not exposed to harmful dust. Additionally, security guards will be on-site during non-working hours.

The EPA said residents can expect increased truck traffic on Keefe Avenue, Holton, and Buffum streets as well as the alleys that surround the property. Access to the Beer Line Trail next to the property may be restricted at times.

Note: A more recent post on this property, including details of what was found inside, is here.

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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.

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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.

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The forgotten Milwaukee River park

Pleasant Valley Park on the west bank of the Milwaukee River was once one of the city's most popular beer gardens. Owned by the Blatz brewery and visited by thousands, it featured elaborate landscaping, a restuarant, bandshell, pavilion, steamboat dock, and even a few cottages. In 2014, little remains to remind visitors of its glory days a century ago. Photo by Carl Swanson

Pleasant Valley Park on the west bank of the Milwaukee River was once one of the city’s most popular beer gardens. Owned by the Blatz brewery and visited by thousands, it featured elaborate landscaping, a restuarant, bandshell, pavilion, steamboat dock, and even a few cottages. Little remains to remind visitors of its glory days a century ago. Photo by Carl Swanson

Pleasant Valley Park, at the foot of East Concordia Avenue on the Milwaukee River, is a peaceful place. The band packed up and left a century ago, about the time the steamboats stopped calling at the park’s dock. A little later, the pavilion, pier, cottages, and bandshell were torn down and the rubble removed. Officially this is a Milwaukee County Park but you wouldn’t know it by looking at it. There are no signs, no parking area, no picnic benches or ball fields, nothing at all to suggest it had ever been anything other than a ravine filled with downed trees and garlic mustard.

But once this was one of Milwaukee’s best-known beer gardens:

“Blatz Park (“Pleasant Valley” before 1892) swarmed with picnickers in those days. Troops of large families from St. Casimir’s Parish, a mile south, regularly followed a makeshift marching band up Humboldt Avenue to the park, each family pulling a coaster wagon containing a picnic lunch. Steam-powered boats, sailing from a dock just above the North Avenue dam, pulled up periodically at the pier and discharged crowds of passengers. The park had a bandshell and later a restaurant. There were also cottages, often rented in the summer, by one account, to actors from a theatre downtown.” – From Riverwest: A Community History, by Tom Tolan, copyright 2003, Past Press, Milwaukee, WI.

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