The story of Milwaukee's Gertie the Duck and her statue on the Wisconsin Avenue bridge
Almost 77 years ago, a mother duck captured the hearts of Milwaukeeans and people around the world. She was known as Gertie the Duck.
Gertie had a nest along the Milwaukee River near the Wisconsin Avenue bridge in 1945 during World War II. Her presence offered a piece of solace to many during a tumultuous time in our history.
According to Amanda Seligman, a professor of history and urban studies at UW-Milwaukee, Gertie was first recognized by the bridge tenders working along the river and they alerted a Milwaukee Journal reporter. Once an article about the mother duck was published, people were hooked.
"Milwaukeeans were so interested in Gertie. Milwaukeeans lined up along the bridge and just spent hours just watching her, talking to each other about what they were seeing," Seligman explains.
The city got involved when concerns were raised about the wellbeing of the ducklings when they hatched. There were concerns they would fall into the river and the city even cleaned up oil slicks that might be harmful to them.
Six of Gertie's ducklings hatched on May 30, 1945. But because of the position of Gertie's nest, they kept falling into the river.
"Of course now we have these world famous ducklings, we can't just let the world famous ducklings die! Someone from the Izaak Walton League came and stood there with a dip net and when the ducks started falling in he would scoop them up and stick them back in the nest," Seligman says.
During a storm, one of the ducklings disappeared and so the bridge tenders decided something needed to be done. They rescued the whole family and decided to move them to the Juneau Park Lagoon.
Seligman explains that Gertie's story gave people something to rally behind during a difficult time. "She really did become a point of interest to Milwaukeeans who were so desperate to have something fun and lovely to think about rather than the war. She had thousands of fans, she got mail, she got Mother's Day cards, she got international news coverage — people just all around the country as well as in Milwaukee were interested in what’s happening with this duck," she says.
There’s a bronze statue of Gertie and her ducklings at the Wisconsin Avenue bridge to honor her memory and what she gave to the people of Milwaukee.