- Where to Go
- The Best of Milwaukee and Madison
- The Best Wisconsin Weekends
- A Perfect Week in Door County
- Wisconsin for Recreationists
- Rustic Road Tripping
- Made in Milwaukee
- Madison Weekend
- Sports: The Packers and Beyond
- Out on the Town in Milwaukee
- Say Cheese!
- Four Days in the Mad City
- A Wisconsin Family Road Trip
- Wisconsin’s Best Brews
The Mascoutin and Fox Indians were the first to live in the tamarack swamps along the Milwaukee, Menomonee, and Kinnickinnic Rivers, though the Potawatomi were most likely to, around 1675, have welcomed the initial French voyageurs, Jesuit Black Robes, and renegade beaver-pelt traders. The city’s name purportedly originates in an Algonquian language: Mahn-a-waukee, Millioki, and any number of other conjectures have all been translated as, roughly, “gathering place by the waters,” a fitting appellation.
Wealth-copping fur traders built the first cabins in the malarial mucklands in the 18th century. Northwest Fur Company trader Jacques Vieau is generally credited with erecting the first shack along the Menomonee River in 1795. The United States duped the Potawatomi and Menominee into ceding all lands east and north of the Milwaukee River in 1831; a couple of years later, all Native American lands in southeastern Wisconsin were gone.
The Bridge War
The first of Milwaukee’s famous native sons, Solomon Juneau—the city’s first permanent European—arrived around 1820 and grabbed erstwhile Native lands. Juneau, George H. Walker, and Byron Kilbourn built rival communities in and around the rivers near Lake Michigan, and none of the three could deflate his ego enough to cooperate on creating one city. Internecine squabbles escalated into claim-jumping and sabotage in what became known as the Bridge War. Irate east-siders considered actually going to war with the west side and at one point even buried a cannon pointed across the waters at Kilbourntown. (Attentive visitors can still discern traces of the Bridge War on a walk of the downtown streets and bridges.)
The first of three massive waves of German immigrants occurred in 1836. By the 1880s, 35 percent of Milwaukee would be German-born, making up 70 percent of Milwaukee’s total immigrant population and contributing to its status as the most ethnically rich area in the country. (It was even dubbed the German Athens.) The ethnic mosaic includes Poles, Serbs, Italians, Irish, African Americans, Dutch, Scandinavians, Bohemians, and Hispanics; in the 2000 census, more than 50 ethnic groups were represented. Milwaukee had the country’s first Polish-language newspaper, and the German publishing industry there rivaled any in the homeland.
The Civil War provided Milwaukee’s biggest economic boon. Milwaukee’s deepwater harbor provided both an outlet for goods and an inlet for immigrant labor. More than 3,300 tanneries, meatpacking plants, and machine and ironworks became industrial stalwarts, and through the 1870s Milwaukee remained the wheat-milling and transport capital of the world. Nowadays, though Milwaukee has shed a bit of its rough exterior, nearly 20 percent of the population is still employed in manufacturing (the highest average of any city in the United States), and the city has retained the moniker “machine shop of America.”
Immigrant labor gave Milwaukee its trademark socialistic overtones. Workers—many of them enlightened freethinkers from Germany fleeing oppression—organized the first trade and labor unions and played a direct role in the establishment of the country’s first unemployment compensation act. In 1888, Milwaukee elected the first socialist ever elected in a major city. Socialist mayor Dan Hoan once said, after refusing to invite the king of Belgium to the city, “I stand for the common man; to hell with kings.”
Socialists were later elected to a few county posts, and Milwaukee eventually sent the first socialist to the House of Representatives. Milwaukee labor unions were among the initial and definitely most vociferous proponents of workplace reform; by the mid-1880s, up to 15,000 workers at a time would stage demonstrations, and in 1886 militia groups fired on crowds in the eastern European enclave of Bay View, killing five immigrant laborers.
World War I was not a particularly good time for German-heavy Milwaukee, but worse was the Prohibition that followed. The Beer City switched to root beer, the socialists organized quasi-WPA relief agencies that predated the Depression, and everybody held on tight. (Interestingly, at 12:01 a.m. on the day Prohibition was officially repealed, Milwaukee somehow managed to ship 15 million bottles of beer!)
After World War II, as African Americans migrated to factory jobs along the Great Lakes, Milwaukee’s African American population reached 17 percent within three decades. Unfortunately, Milwaukee remained one of the nation’s most segregated cities, as riots and marches of the 1960s showed.
Lucrative factory days waned, and the central city declined. Exhaustive machinations to overhaul the downtown began in the mid-1980s, and a careful gentrification—no sickening ersatz tourist-shakedown sheen—has real history. Still, that’s not to say Milwaukee isn’t striving for a new image. And it works: In all, tourism in Milwaukee generates around $2 billion, accounting for more than 20 percent of the state economy.
© Thomas Huhti from Moon Wisconsin, 5th Edition