Even if you’ve spent only a little time in Milwaukee, you’ve likely noticed some unusual figures lurking on city sidewalks. They’re big and blue, dotting street corners across Milwaukee.
One sits right outside Kristine Hinrichs’ condo downtown, on the corner of 3rd Street and St. Paul Avenue.
“I’ve lived downtown almost 25 years, and they’re everywhere,” Hinrichs remarks.
Hinrichs’ curiosity about these landmarks sparked this week’s Bubbler Talk question: “What’s with all the blue police and fire call boxes? Do they work? If so, how do you use them? If not, why are they there?”
To get to the bottom of things, we enlisted the help of Al Muchka, curator of history collections at the Milwaukee Public Museum. As one of the historians behind the museum’s revamped “Streets of Old Milwaukee,” Muchka knows exactly where to start.
He strolls confidently through the exhibit, stopping in front of a big box tucked between granny’s house and an old storefront. It’s about the size and shape of those famous red British telephone booths. Except this box is wooden, painted a dark shade of green.
“[This is] the one that started it off,” Muchka says. “They’re called police sentry boxes, and they came to Milwaukee in the late 1880s.”
Around that time, Muchka says, cities like Milwaukee used beat cops, policemen assigned to a particular neighborhood, which they patrolled by foot.
That’s where the boxes came in.
“The idea is that the officers had a station in the neighborhood from which they could work,” he explains. “The earliest ones were essentially just a locker - a place for the officer to keep his lunch, his raincoat. But what the police actually wind up needing is a way to communicate with their central stations.”
The first method of communication installed in these boxes mirrored telegraph machines used in ships at the time.
About the size of a large alarm clock, these machines allowed policemen to turn a dial corresponding to the crime taking place – options included thieves, riot, drunkards, murder and robbery. Depending on which option they selected, a signal went back to central, who dispatched help accordingly.
As technology – and criminals – became more sophisticated, newfangled telephones were installed in the boxes, so policemen could contact their stations for backup.
In the early 1900s, about 900 of these large boxes could be found throughout the city – painted blue, the universal color of public safety.
Originally, there were pull cords on the back for the public to summon police. But the neighborhood kids yanked it one too many times. The MPD locked the boxes, and only cops had keys.
A few smaller, red boxes remained for the public to contact their local fire department.
As phones got smaller, so did the boxes. By the 1930s, they were about the size of a paper grocery bag - two feet tall, one foot-and-a-half wide - perched atop a pedestal. The MPD designed this model itself. At one point, the model became so popular that the city’s manufacturing partner was shipping order across the upper Midwest, and even out to the East coast.
This more modern box is what Kristine Hinrichs can see from her window. We went out and found another just around the corner.
“It says, ‘turn key to open door,’” Hinrichs observes. “I would love to see what was inside there.”
As it turns out, only a handful of officers still have keys.
One of the lucky owners is Sergeant Tim Gauerke. He got a key from his field trainer about 10 years ago. We drove to a box on the corner of Sixth Street and Michigan Avenue to find out if his key still works.
“Not all the keys work, [but] this one does work!” he exclaims, swinging open the small cast iron door.
Inside sits an old, black touch tone phone. It’s covered in dust and looks like it hasn’t been used in years. Gauerke picks up the receiver and puts it to his ear – no dial tone.
Pasted to the inside of the door is a small, white Post-It pad, listing the officers who last accessed this box, and the date they opened it: June 10, 2006.
The boxes started losing their function around the late 1930s, when officers relied more on radio technology.
The city still boasts about 1,200 call boxes. Sergeant Gauerke isn’t sure how many of them still work, or how many are just there for show, like the one we saw.
As long as they’re not damaged or in the way of construction, the boxes are here to stay.
“It’s just kind of a reminder of the way things used to be,” Gauerke says. “It must have been an interesting time, when those boxes were used more often.”
“It’s just been part of the neighborhood landscape, and part of the police effect on a neighborhood,” adds Al Muchka. “Those boxes really are kind of a standing symbol that the police are here for you, and that they are in your neighborhood and that they are still working for you.”