What happened to the bathhouses that used to be along the Milwaukee River?
That’s the question listener Laura Hatrich submitted to WUWM’s Bubbler Talk. “I see some structural footprints, but wonder how and why they were removed,” she wonders.
Remains of one can still be seen at Gordon Park on East Locust Street in Milwaukee. And, that’s where Lake Effect’s Bonnie North and Milwaukee writer / local history buff Bobby Tanzilo head to learn more.
“The Gordon Park [bathhouse] opened in around 1914 and by then there were quite a few of them,” Bobby explains.
During its heyday, “there was sort of an enclosure built into the river right at the bank, so you could swim in something like a pool, but it’s the river water in there.”
“They all closed kind of around the same era, the end of the ‘30s and into the ‘40s,” Bobby says.
What caused the closures?
One word, Bobby says: “Pollution.”
"Companies had discharged toxins into the water. Construction sites and farms added runoff. The city for a time dumped its sewage and garbage into the river to ferry it to the lake," Marge Pitrof says in a piece she produced in 2012 on the history of the Milwaukee River.
“The river had just become too dirty for people to be in," Bobby adds.
Another local historian, Carl Swanson, writes on his website, Milwaukee Notebook, by the late '40s the building sat empty for almost a decade and was regularly being vandalized. "Faced with continued repairs to a building that no longer had a real purpose, the county bowed to the inevitable. The building closed and was torn down in the late 1950s. "
Today, where the bathhouse once stood, you see an overgrowth of trees and other greenery.
“There are still some ruins of the bathhouse,” Bobby says, “You can see some bits of staircase and wall.”
And Carl writes, "Demolition crews left the massive retaining wall in place, probably because (at the time) the river still lapped against it and erosion certainly would have followed its removal."
There is no river at the foot of the stairs now. That’s because, Bobby says, 15 or 20 years ago, they opened the dam at North Avenue.
So, while the structural footprints still stand, it’s hard to imagine people lathering on their sunscreen and putting on their bathing suits to for a dip in the Milwaukee River today.
However, there are people in the city working to make the river a swimmable place once again.
But we have a long way to go before that becomes a reality.
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