Milwaukee is often overlooked and overshadowed by Chicago and Detroit (even if usually for bad news), and seem destined to never be quite as cool as the Twin Cities (“The Hipster Capital of the Tundra”).
So it’s natural that the city’s interesting and unusual history isn’t any more publicized that the city itself.
Like NYC, Milwaukee wasn’t always one city – it was formed by a merger of rival settlements. Three towns became one, and bridging the three-way split required…what do you think? Rationality? Efficiency? Common sense? Come on, get real, there were politicians and capitalists involved. And these are Badgers we’re talking about! These people chose an incredibly combative giant weasel for their mascot. Of course there was some strife and lunacy before they could come together.
“The Bridge War” was part of the city’s tumultuous creation process — an odd story of destruction and “burning bridges” rather than building them.
The Milwaukee River is now mostly a place for pleasure boats. But people focused on rivers in the old days, in ways that we’ve forgotten. Rivers were the highways and trade routes, and sources of energy, and were still important, long after the railroads and steam engines came along. They were lines of communication. But they also have always served as borders and frontiers.
Natives of New York City are very aware that its boroughs were once proud, independent towns and cities, some for over two centuries. In the 1800’s, the Roeblings built what was then the longest suspension bridge in the world, to link Manhattan to… those people on the other side of the East River. The Brooklyn Bridge was an instant hit, and over 150,000 crossed on the first day, between the two biggest cities in the area, but a few years later, when the cities voted on merger, it was a real squeaker, and Brooklyn passed it by just a few hundred votes.
And Milwaukee had its Bridge War, which resulted from a fierce rivalry between three communities.
Juneautown was on the East bank of the Milwaukee River,
Kilbourntown was on the West bank,
and Walker’s Point was on the South bank.
Wait, can a river have three banks? OK, Walker’s Point turned out to be on the south bank of the Menomonee River, and not pointy at all as far as I can make out.
All three towns were named for their founders, and all three founders were very much alive and well at the time of the War. In fact, once the city was created, they took turns being mayor. Which is nice.
But in the beginning, we had three rival Founding Fathers – – who were classic examples of that all-American hybrid, the Politician-Capitalist–Land Speculator. The competition between their settlements was so intense, they deliberately laid out their streets, so that they didn’t intersect with their rivals’. Even today, most of the bridges in this city have to cross the river on a diagonal, posing a hazard for boats, as a result of this nonsense.
In 1845, the state government ordered the creation of a bridge over the Milwaukee River, between Juneau’s and Kilbourn’s sectors. This proved widely unpopular on both sides of the river, as they enjoyed being independent entities, and feared they would lose out financially if they became part of a bigger collective. There was also the simple economics of deciding who would pay to maintain and run the bridge.
Then and now, here and abroad, the “West Bank” always seems to be problematical.
On May 8, 1845, the people of Kilbourntown started the war, by simply dumping their half of the bridge into the river. They destroyed the drawbridge, to prevent those on the East Side from entering their town. In retaliation, the Easterners destroyed other small bridges, to prevent the denizens of the West from crossing to Juneautown. There were fistfights and worse, but no one was actually killed, and the ridiculous and petty war shortly fizzled out. The next year, sanity prevailed and a united city was created.
In any case, the Germans had started arriving – including soon-to-be-famous brewers — Miller, Schlitz, Pabst, and Blatz – and somehow the whole East Bank – West Bank thing didn’t seem so important, after a couple of steins of beer.
Solomon Juneau served as the first mayor, and his rivals Walker and Kilbourn also had their shot at running the city. Juneau married a member of the Menomonee Nation, and retired to the country. Once a year, his cousin Joseph would write to remind him, that his town was still called Juneau, Alaska, and why exactly was Solomon’s place called Milwaukee now? (Ok I made that last part up.)
Byron Kilbourn went on to various elected positions and business speculations, until his sharp-dealing caught up to him, and a bribery scandal caused his railroad to go bankrupt. He ended up forgotten in Jacksonville, Florida. About twenty years ago, the city dug him up and reburied him here – – he was kind of a disgrace, but they wanted a complete set of Founding Fathers.
George Walker was a fur trader, and never had the cash of the other two, and lost control of his patch of land. But he did get to be mayor. Twice.
A minute, trivial footnote in history, for a city almost reduced to the skids. But a good lesson about a place that shook off its selfish, bridge-burning past and united, and made a contribution to America.
Personally, I’ve always been fascinated by bridges – the architecture, the symbolism, and the stories. A good bridge is not just beautiful, it almost always carries with it a good story or two. So when I first set foot in Milwaukee, I looked at my little map and headed for the river.
My guidebook said the river has Bascules. My keen, college-educated mind presented three options:
- If I remembered biology class correctly, a bascule is the digestive tract of an amoeba, or,
- that mysterious ethic group in northern Spain, that used to blow things up, or,
- a mythological creature that asks you three questions or riddles or something, and if you get it wrong, it eats you or you fall into the Gorge of Eternal Peril. Or something.
So, it turned out, all three guesses were wrong. A Bascule is a kind of drawbridge. The drawbridge was being pulled up when I got there, and I looked across the river to see what had caused the Panic & Alarum — an attack on Milwaukee, expecting to see maybe…a horde from the Sons of Norway with battle axes? Scott Walker & The Tea Party, waving torches? The Menomonee Nation on the warpath?
But it dawned on me — the lift bridges are just to let the boats go out to the lake.
There is an endless stream of stories about bridges:
T. Barnum’s parade of elephants, to prove the safety of the Brooklyn Bridge .
- A really cool science lesson called “aeroelastic flutter,” “mechanical resonance,” or maybe “sympathetic vibration” (I don’t know, whatever, did you think I was a physics major?) when the Tacoma Narrows Bridge turned into “Galloping Gertie” and ripped itself apart – – just very cool, and scary, to see a suspension bridge start bucking in waves, look up the video.
- The storied London Bridge, (“London Bridge is falling down, falling down…“) now sitting on an artificial lake in Arizona.
- The Millennium Bridge in London, a beautiful sculpture, and a fantastic pedestrian walkway over the Thames — except the engineers forgot that pedestrians are human beings. When it opened, the first people walking across it, instinctively compensated for the slight swaying motion — and their reactions collectively made it sway harder and harder, until it was impossible to walk. I thought it sounded fun, but they added more guy-wires to fix it.
- The Waterloo Bridge, with bronze lamps made by melting down Napoleon’s cannons
- Tappan Zee Bridge – NY’s sagging, staggeringly expensive symbol of governmental infighting and dysfunction
The Golden Gate – beautiful, impressive, but a magnet for over a thousand suicides
- Even the Roeblings weren’t infallible – – their Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge lasted forty years, carrying trains on one level and pedestrians on another, but when locomotives got heavier, it had to be replaced with a homely, but stronger, steel arch bridge.
Hells Gate Bridge in NYC, so-called, because when you cross it, you’re in Queens. The model for the Sydney Harbour Bridge in Australia. To my eye, kind of ugly, but incredibly strong. Part of it is supported by another span, far underground, over a fissure in the rock bed. The bridge’s piers are on two islands, and supposedly, they were made of very smooth stone, so that inmates on the islands’ mental asylums couldn’t climb up and escape.