Milwaukee's Lost Town Of Lake

Jan 17, 2020

Have you ever noticed a place name on your Google Maps or GPS, and thought, "I wonder what that is?"

That's what happened to South Milwaukee resident Mary Holtz, when she was driving near Bay View.  

"My husband and I were interested in something we spotted on our navigation screen called the Town of Lake," Holtz told WUWM’s Bubbler Talk. "We were curious about its history. Does it actually exist anywhere other than this digital navigation? What happened to it? Where'd it come from? Where'd it go?"

Bubbler Talk question-asker Mary Holtz first became curious about the Town of Lake when it popped up on her car navigation map.
Credit Emily Files

Mary and I took a drive, in search of the so-called Town of Lake. The name pops up west of Bay View. It hovers over Bolivar Avenue, a few blocks east of Howell Avenue. But there is no town there. Rather, it's part of the city of Milwaukee.

The Township On The Lake

To learn the story behind the town that isn’t, we turned to local historian Ron Winkler. He literally wrote the book on the Town of Lake.

"The Town of Lake is a neighborhood on the south side of the city of Milwaukee," Ron says. "And it goes by three names: Town of Lake, Tippecanoe, or most recently, The Garden District."

Town of Lake appears as a neighborhood name on Mary Holtz's car navigation screen.
Credit Emily Files

But Lake used to be more than just a neighborhood. "What we’re talking about today is only a remnant," Ron says.

Lake was one of Milwaukee County’s original townships, formed by the Wisconsin Territorial Legislature in the late 1830s. The others were Milwaukee, Granville, Wauwatosa, Greenfield, Franklin and Oak Creek.

In the 19th century, Lake encompassed a wide swath of agricultural land south of Milwaukee.  

History buff Ron Winkler and Bubbler Talk questioner Mary Holtz compare modern and historical maps of Milwaukee County.
Credit Emily Files / WUWM

"Its original boundaries were College Avenue on the south, Greenfield Avenue on the north, 27th Street on the west, and Lake Michigan on the east," Ron explains.

When Mary and I were driving in search of what her GPS calls the Town of Lake, we drove by landmarks that used to be part of original township. The art deco water tower on 6th Street, Burdick School, General Mitchell Airport, and Saveland Park, to name a few.

Below: Historical and present day images of the Town of Lake water tower on South 6th Street and the intersection of Morgan Avenue and 27th Street.

Other historic places, like the Saint Francis convent and seminary, and Landmark Inn, are vestiges of Lake.

The 'Annexation Wars'

So, what happened to Lake? Ron explains that pieces of the township were gradually chipped away within about a 100-year period.

"These different municipalities were trying to grab the land," Ron says. "Milwaukee was slowly moving in all directions. There were lots of border wars.”

Sections of Lake were annexed into Cudahy and Milwaukee, including what is now the Bay View neighborhood. The residents of Lake tried to solidify their independence from Milwaukee in 1951 by incorporating part of Lake into the city of Saint Francis.

This 1954 map portrays the last 9.5 square miles of Lake before it was consolidated with Milwaukee that year.
Credit Courtesy Ron Winkler and Cudahy Historical Society

"The idea was that if this was successful, then they would annex more of the town of the Lake to keep it out of the city of Milwaukee," Ron said.

But the plan for Saint Francis to absorb more of Lake didn't work. Ron says it’s partly because Saint Francis struggled financially during its first decade in existence, and Lake was plagued by political corruption.

"It was only a matter of time before the town would die and become part of the city of Milwaukee."

"So it was only a matter of time before the town would die and become part of the city of Milwaukee," Ron says.

Lake’s last 9-square miles were consolidated with Milwaukee in 1954. What started out as a close to 30-square-mile township was essentially annexed into extinction. Ron says the story sheds light on why Milwaukee County has such erratic boundaries.

A map of the Town of Lake from 1876. Lake was one of Milwaukee County's original townships, formed in the mid 1800s.
Credit Courtesy Ron Winkler and Bay View Historical Societybay

"There was really no rhyme nor reason to how those political boundaries were formed," Ron says. "No one could have ever predicted what we have today in Milwaukee County."

"It feels rather wistful to think [Lake] did probably play a much greater role in the foundation of the area than we give it credit for," said Bubbler Talk questioner Mary Holtz.  

But Lake does live on as a neighborhood name. And it still shows up on GPS maps, proclaiming what it used to be — one of Milwaukee County’s original pioneer towns.

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