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The City's Past Relationship with its Namesake

If you want to view a thriving strip of the City of Milwaukee – hop a boat and cruise the Milwaukee River. New housing and repurposed old buildings line the waterfront and its adjoining neighborhoods. Most vessels that cruise the river these days are not the working types of generations past, but rather pleasure boats.

The City of Milwaukee owes its existence to the Milwaukee River. It flows, 100-miles from the north and empties here into one of the deepest harbors on Lake Michigan. During the 1800s, when people and goods traveled by water, the river became the arterial here for European settlers. Director of City Development Rocky Marcoux says it bustled with commerce.

“You can look back at pictures and see the Milwaukee River absolutely jammed. You could literally walk, in some cases, almost ship to ship," Marcoux says.

Entrepreneurs built warehouses along the water’s edge to hold traded items. Other immigrants erected small factories that needed water to make things – such as leather. Historian John Gurda says the community also put the river to work by building dams at what are now North Avenue and Capitol Drive.

“Those provided hydraulic power for what is now Commerce Street - lumberyards, flourmills and tanneries. And as Milwaukee became a brewing capital, they needed ice to keep all that beer cold during the summer months, and a lot of that was cut in the Milwaukee River,” Gurda says.

The community even created an inner harbor to protect docked vessels by moving the mouth of the river a quarter mile north.

While Milwaukee used the river downstream for industry and commerce, residents flocked to northern sections for recreation.

“Upstream, later 1800s, it was lined with beer gardens, amusement parks, swimming schools, canoe clubs. Back in those days, people were not building cottages up north, and thousands of people would use the river on a summer Sunday, especially,” Gurda says.

Gurda says even in winter, people would recreate on the river - when a good freeze grabbed hold. Will Wawrzyn remembers falling through the ice a few times – near shore. He hung out along the water in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood - perhaps leading him to his career as a fisheries biologist with the DNR.

“One thing that always caught our attention, my friends and cousins, was when the ice went out, we made it a habit of going down to see what sort of fish had died underneath the ice,” Wawrzyn says.

As the years went by, and waterfront manufacturers moved or closed, Wawrzyn says the Milwaukee River could have been a poster child for how resources suffer when development occurs too rapidly without regard for consequence. 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. Historian John Gurda says actually by the 1920s, people would not be sitting where we are today – along the banks in Pere Marquette Park.

“This was an open sewer, and that is no metaphor,” Gurda says.

The city even employed a gigantic pump to flush the river with Lake Michigan water and considered making the river disappear.

“There were actually some proposals to cover it, to kind of cap it and turn it into a grand boulevard,” Gurda says.

Gurda says a few stray voices recommended environmental protections. But for nearly a half-century, the community ignored the river, reducing it to the butt of jokes.

As the nation grew more attuned to water pollution heading into the 1970s, the U.S. and Canada launched efforts to protect the Great Lakes. Researchers identified contaminated tributaries needing remediation, including the Milwaukee River. The DNR’s Will Wawrzyn says steps included dredging contaminated sediments such as PCBs and upgrading the treatment plants still pouring wastewater into the river.

“With respect to point sources, things have very much improved. When I first started in the mid-70s, there were long stretches that were very degraded. Fish kills were relatively common,” Wawrzyn says.

While Wawrzyn describes remaining environmental challenges as immense, civic appreciation for Milwaukee’s original asset has returned. For instance, the city built Riverwalk – a walkway spanning the downtown river. Historian John Gurda says the return of people to the river’s edge sprouted new types of development – a lot it, simply, because of people’s desire to face the water.

”But it’s still a vital use and one that adds value to the urban experience,” Gurda says.

On Monday, our series will continue when Bob Bach motors past downtown Milwaukee’ new waterfront assets. They’re worth hundreds of millions of dollars.