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Squatting on Jones Island

Jun. 24, 2009
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Sitting in the shadows of cargo containers and silos, surrounded by embedded railroad tracks and security fences, a diminutive city lot called Kaszube’s Park is the remaining footprint of what was once the heart of commercial fishing in southeastern Wisconsin. The “island” is actually a peninsula named for James Monroe Jones, who built a prosperous shipyard there in 1854, only to have it demolished in a storm five years later. The land went untouched until 1872, when Jacob Muza, a fisherman from German-occupied Poland, decided to establish a fishing colony on the spot. Without obtaining a title to the island, Muza constructed a breakwater and set down roots. He invited fellow fishing families from the homeland to immigrate to the peninsula, and within 20 years it was home to about 1,800 people.

The population was composed of a small number of Scandinavians, as well as German and Polish fishing families from the southern shore of the Baltic Sea, most of who were Kashubians. Also referred to as Kaszubs, this ethnic group from northern Poland had a distinct dialect and customs that differed from the Poles that had settled on the mainland. The Kaszubs recreated the lifestyle they had once known on the Baltic Sea on the shores of Lake Michigan, fishing for herring, sturgeon, whitefish, trout and perch, first from sailboats, then later from tugboats.

About a mile long and only three blocks wide, Jones Island had its inhabitants packed like sardines. Muza claimed the island by right of conquest and allotted property as he chose fit. Dwellings ranged from shanties built on pilings to large Victorian homes with mature trees filling in the landscape. Roads wandered from one location to another without the organization of proper Germanic lines. As cramped as it was, there was still room for plenty of saloons. Beginning in the 1890s, Jones Island went through a phase as a tourist attraction, when Milwaukeeans rowed across the narrow body of water between the peninsula and the mainland for fish fries and crab boils.

Having never officially obtained a deed for the land, Jones Islanders were vulnerable when the Illinois Steel Co. claimed title to the land for better docking facilities to serve their enormous steel mill. The city of Milwaukee played its part in uprooting squatters through condemnation proceedings. Milwaukee Mayor David Rose first proposed the peninsula as a site for a much-needed sewage disposal plant in 1900. Construction of the Jones Island Wastewater Treatment Plant began in 1917, and by 1925 the first part of the plant was opened. It was the largest facility in the nation to harness nature in the form of microorganisms that fed on pollutants to clean wastewater. A handful of diehards remained on the western edge of the settlement, the present site of Kaszube’s Park. The last of the Jones Island inhabitants were ousted by 1944. The land is now home to the Port of Milwaukee and the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, and it supports one of Milwaukee’s most recognizable landmarks, the Hoan Bridge.

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Photo by Kate Engbring


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