Dimly lit lamps, cobblestone streets, and endless picturesque windows to peek in: The Streets of Old Milwaukee exhibit at the Milwaukee Public Museum has been a hometown favorite for generations. MPM is currently celebrating the 50th anniversary of the exhibit with a much-publicized reawakening. Long overdue for some and feared by loyalists, the “reimagined” Streets of Old Milwaukee—opening today—add new characters and enrich many of the previous displays. With these fictional streets so well known to locals, what about Milwaukee’s real city streets?
The present day names and geographical placement of streets in Milwaukee began with the city’s early European colonists. Location played a large role in the settling of early Milwaukee, namely its location near water. The city’s position along the Lake Michigan shoreline was obviously a huge attraction for early immigrants. Yet even more important were the deep, winding rivers that fed into the coastline. The large bay and fertile Menomonee River Valley enticed not only early settlers, but also big name industrialists.
In its infancy, Milwaukee was mostly broken up into three villages. East of the Milwaukee River existed Juneautown, named after landowner and entrepreneur Solomon Juneau. Shortly after, Byron Kilbourn purchased large parcels of land west of the river. Kilbourn developed his land—named Kilbourntown—separate from the east, which created fierce competition between the two areas. The third city, while much less developed, was founded by George Walker. This area, Walker’s Point, struggled to compete with the other two cities due to Walker’s personal financial troubles.
With no one else to decide when, where, or how their streets were built, this three-part rivalry resulted in mismatched roads and unconstructed bridges. The main competitors—Kilbourn and Juneau—refused to build bridges to meet their respective adversary on the other side. This created many problems for the residents of the east and west sides. While getting around town was an obvious hassle, resources that settlers wanted access to were not distributed equally. Getting to the courthouse, the post office, or church could mean attempting to cross a river via a scantily constructed ferry system. In 1840, the Wisconsin Legislature ordered a real drawbridge be built along Chestnut Street (now Juneau Avenue).
Despite protests, more bridges were erected at what is now Wisconsin Avenue, Wells Street, and Water Street. Building these bridges was at times problematic, as the streets intentionally did not line up, hence Milwaukee’s angled bridges. While east side residents privately funded much of the construction, west side residents took this as an act of aggression. Tensions rose, meetings were called, and disruption ensued. Early one morning, locals woke up to find the Chestnut Street bridge had been hacked to pieces and dropped into the river. Crowds gathered, mobs formed, and violence broke out. For the next week, other bridges were destroyed as residents took up arms and fought in the streets.
The Bridge War of 1845 had officially erupted. Fortunately, relatively few were seriously injured in the protests. A truce was agreed upon and a charter was drafted to unite the three villages into an official city, Milwaukee, on January 31, 1846—two years before Wisconsin became a state. Solomon Juneau became the city’s first mayor and, aptly, Juneau Avenue was named after him. The city moved on and settlers came in droves as industry and manufacturing expanded. The roads, however, still remained a mess after the Bridge War. Despite physically unifying the city, street names did not change. A street on one side of a bridge would often have a different name on the other side. That, coupled with a lack of a numerical system, made identifying buildings, homes, or businesses difficult.
At the turn of the century, postal workers and citizens demanded a change. In 1913, Milwaukee held its first commission to attempt to create a street naming system. This early commission suggested numbered streets in one direction and named streets in the other direction—modeled after a system used in Philadelphia. With the duplication and confusion of streets in Milwaukee, the commission also suggested eliminating and adding names. Many citizens, however, didn’t share the commission’s acceptance of change. It would take years for Milwaukee to agree on a system; under Mayor Daniel Hoan, a city engineer was ordered to draw up a plan. This plan, accepted in 1926, not only simplified and reduced duplicate names, but it included a uniform numbering system. After many years of changes, the city engineer’s department would be in charge of naming the Milwaukee streets.
While similar to most major metropolitan areas, city streets in Milwaukee were named after early settlers and businessmen: Juneau, Kilbourn, Walker, Wells, Vliet, Clybourn, and Mason, to name a few. Often, roads were named after presidents and local politicians such as Blaine, Dewey, Grant, Polk, and Stowell. Streets were also named after natural and geological features, such as Blue Mound, Fountain, Glen, Sumac, Elm, and Evergreen Lane.
The majority of the naming came from local business owners, political leaders and their relatives, names of lakes, countries, and Native American tribes. However, some street names commemorated different types of local leaders, such as civil rights activists, inventors, and artists; some were just misspelled or simply odd. Here’s a sampling of a few:
After many unsuccessful ventures as a fireman, postal agent, vegetable stand proprietor, and saloon owner (where he made the news for shooting a patron), Arthur Aldrich was most infamously known as the proprietor of an unreliable horse-drawn carriage service from Bay View to Downtown in the early 1870s. Customers were often stranded or left waiting for his carriage because he reportedly stopped working whenever he wanted to. After being driven out of business by a timelier competitor, he became a deputy sheriff.
Lydia Ely came to the Wisconsin territory as a child and became a local artist. She organized an art fair that sold paintings and sculptures—the first of its kind in Wisconsin—to raise money to build a soldiers home for veterans of the Civil War. In line with her love of art and honoring the veterans, she raised $30,000 to fund the completion of the Milwaukee Soldiers Monument of 9th and Wisconsin.
Ohio was to be the name of the streets in the Parkway Hills community, but the word “Ohio” was misread on the post office application as “Rio,” and Rio Street was named in 1958.
Jonathan Peirce (despite the street name, he spelled his surname with the “e” before the “i”) opened a dry goods store in Milwaukee in 1849 before becoming interested in land graphing. During his time as a surveyor, he named a few other Milwaukee streets. Ironically, he died in 1875 from exposure caused by surveying the land in the subdivision that bears his name.
Christopher Latham Sholes was a printer, politician, and editor for the Milwaukee News (which later became the Milwaukee Sentinel) in his early career. He is credited for inventing the first commercial typewriter, which was later sold to the Remington Company and was successfully manufactured and produced. The Milwaukee Public Museum has an extensive collection of vintage typewriters, including the Dietz collection.
The Bay View Massacre occurred in 1886 at a steel mill when workers went on strike to protest for an eight-hour workday. These sentiments were gaining momentum in the region, as the Haymarket Riot occurred in nearby Chicago within the same week. In Milwaukee, when the standoff occurred, the militia men were ordered by Governor Rusk to shoot dead four men and a boy who stood in way. Despite ordering the murder of innocent strikers in his state, Rusk stood by his actions and was a popular political figure. He stated about that day, “I seen my duty and I done it.” A memorial sign stands at the site in Bay View today.
Wilbur Halyard moved to Milwaukee from Beloit in 1923, where he worked to help African Americans find housing at a time when racial and political tensions made life difficult for many living in cities. To change this, he opened the Columbia Savings and Loan Association, the first African American-owned bank in the state. His wife Ardie was also an activist who served as the president for both the Milwaukee and Wisconsin chapters of the NAACP. She also formed the Milwaukee division of the NAACP Youth Council, which would later be advised by Father James Groppi and lead hundreds of marches in support of open housing legislation.
This street was named after President Teddy Roosevelt after an infamous event during a visit to Milwaukee. Roosevelt made a stop in Milwaukee on October 14, 1912 to give a speech during his tour for the presidential election campaign. Before Roosevelt could deliver the speech indoors, a man by the name of John Schrank attempted to shoot him. The bullet hit the President, but it went through his glasses case and a 50-page manuscript in his large pocket, reducing the impact of the bullet. The former Rough Rider decided he was fine, and with a bullet lodged in his chest gave a 90-minute campaign speech. Mr. Schrank was arrested and later committed when he claimed he tried to kill Roosevelt because the ghost of former President McKinley told him to do it.