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John Gurda navigates Milwaukee history in new book about the city built on water

Expanding on his popular Milwaukee Public Television documentary, John Gurda explores the city’s complicated relationship with its most precious resource.

From celebrated Milwaukee historian and author John Gurda, his newest Wisconsin Historical Society Press book, Milwaukee: A City Built on Water dives into the history of the waters that shaped, challenged, and helped make Milwaukee famous.

“While every city owes its existence to an ample supply of freshwater, John Gurda’s masterful story shows how Milwaukee’s relationship with water goes way beyond the sustenance. This extraordinary book should be required reading for anyone living in a Great Lakes city.”

– Dan Egan, author of “The Death and Life of the Great Lakes”

Gurda tells the tales of brewers, brickmakers, and ecologists. He recounts the story of generations of people — from a Potawatomi chief to fur traders and fishermen — who settled on the small spit of land known as Jones Island. Gurda shares how Milwaukee’s unique water composition created its distinctive cream-colored bricks, how the upper Milwaukee River became Wisconsin’s first waterpark, and how the downtown stream evolved from a “vast sewer” into a waterway clean enough to support today’s lovely and lively Riverwalk.

Along the way, he also launches into the mucky history of Milwaukee waters including its threats to the city through pollution, invasive species, and water-borne diseases. The book features many historical images as well as contemporary photographs by Christopher Winters. Milwaukee: A City Built on Water is Gurda’s second history book published by Wisconsin Historical Society Press.

“A beautiful book. John Gurda is a dynamic storyteller, and Christopher Winters’s photos bring this rich history to life. The historical perspective offered through the medium of water is brilliant.”

– Ken Leinbach, Executive Director of Urban Ecology Center, Milwaukee

John Gurda is a Milwaukee-born writer and historian who has been studying his hometown since 1972. He is the author of twenty-one books, including such histories of Milwaukee as The Making of Milwaukee, which was also a top rated PBS mini-series. The common thread in his work is understanding history as “why things are the way they are,” Gurda wrote.

Wisconsin Historical Society Press

Lee Matz

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