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Bridge Wars!

What our crooked bridges reveal about early Milwaukee

Apr. 7, 2014
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When Byron Kilbourn first stood on the land west of the Milwaukee River in 1834, he predicted that the plot would one day become the greatest city in the American west.  East of the waterway, Frenchman Solomon Juneau had already established a small trading community. To the south, easterner George Walker was about to build the first permanent structures in what would become Walker’s Point. These three men are today recognized as Milwaukee’s founding fathers. But for all his savvy, Kilbourn was also a ruthless operator whose callous ways fueled a discord in early Milwaukee that still impacts the city today. Looking east from Kilbourntown today, one would probably notice Milwaukee’s crooked bridges. Along State, Kilbourn, Wells and Wisconsin, bridges span the Milwaukee River with a peculiar asymmetry that reveals just how disjointed Milwaukee once was.

In 1839, the village of Milwaukee was officially incorporated, unifying the individual villages established by Juneau, Kilbourn and Walker two years prior. Juneautown and Kilbourntown were fierce competitors. When Kilbourn laid out his street grid in 1835, he did so without regard to the streets Juneau had already built. Aligning the roads would have meant acknowledging the viability of Juneautown, something Kilbourn was loath to do. So dismissive was he of the east side’s prospects, his maps of the area ignored Juneautown completely, presenting the area as an empty plot. When steamers began delivering goods and investors to Kilbourn’s west side docks, he ordered the boats’ captains to inform their passengers that Juneautown was merely an Indian trading post.

Despite the paper unification of Milwaukee, the area was still very factionalized. Nothing stirred animosity between the settlements as much as control over the rivers. Kilbourn had planned to build a bridge spanning the Menomonee River, connecting his west side and Walker’s south point shortly after setting up in the area in 1835. But, the lumber he had prepared for the structure was mysteriously dumped into the river one night. He always suspected foul play. Juneau had called for spanning the Milwaukee River between east and west as early as 1837, but Kilbourn managed to stall the project until 1840, when the territorial government of Wisconsin finally forced it forward. That same year, Kilbourn completed his Menomonee Bridge, tentatively linking all three village wards.

The controversy continued. In addition to the bridge at Chestnut (now Juneau), private subscription bridges were built at Spring (now Wisconsin) in 1842 and Oneida (now Wells) in 1844. That same year, the eastern ward was connected to Walker’s southern ward with a span at North Water Street. Kilbourn had opposed each of these but the bridge at Spring, which allowed his ward access to the city hall and courthouse. The others he considered an impediment to the schooners and steamboats that were now frequenting his west side docks.

On May 3, 1845, the tensions were aroused when a schooner captain rammed his vessel into the bridge at Spring Street. Rumors flew in the western ward that east warders, angered over the refusal of the westerners to pay for bridge upkeep, had bribed the captain to damage the west’s preferred river span. At an emergency meeting of village trustees four days later, west ward representatives declared that the bridge at Chestnut Street—a span championed by Juneau—had become an “insupportable nuisance,” and that they held the authority to remove such impediments located within their ward. The east ward awoke the next morning to the noise of west ward workmen clearing away the impediment. The men were literally trying to tear down the Chestnut Street Bridge from the mid-point of the river westward. The structure, of course, could not survive halved and soon fell into the water. Enraged, east warders gathered a small arsenal of weapons, including an old cannon loaded with clock weights (no cannon balls could be found). The artillery piece was aimed at Kilbourn’s west side home and was about to be fired when someone called out that Kilbourn’s young daughter had just died. Not willing to attack a “house in mourning,” the east warders held fire.

In the wake of the west ward’s destruction of the Chestnut Bridge, the trustees voted to remove the bridge at Oneida Street and use its pieces to repair the damaged Spring Street structure. East warders, stung that each of their preferred connections to the west would now be lost, mounted their own assault on the village’s river crossings on May 28. Armed with rifles, clubs and hammers, the Juneautown men smashed the support bolts on the Spring Street bridge before moving on to the little span connecting the west and south wards. As they shoved that structure into the river, rifle shots rang out in celebration. As the mob marched home that evening, the village of Milwaukee was now home to one standing bridge, four wrecked ones, and three wards of anxious citizens. 

The weeks following the attack were tense. Partisans found on the wrong side of the water were sent home bloodied. Easterners sent “spies” into the west to spread rumors that an attack on Kilbourn’s Milwaukee River dam was pending. By early June, the village trustees had ordered all bridge work to be done under armed guard. As summer turned to fall, emotions on the matter tempered and both sides seemed to realize their actions were unbecoming to a burgeoning port settlement. That December, recognizing the need to distance Milwaukee from its petty ward rivalries, the village trustees put forth a plan for three permanent bridges spanning the Milwaukee River and approved a resolution to draft a city charter. On Jan. 31, 1846, the charter was approved by the territorial legislature and the city of Milwaukee was born. By that spring, the once-warring wards of Juneau and Kilbourn had three new bridge spans—finally providing a permanent, albeit slightly crooked, connection.


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