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Author: Carl Swanson

Carl Swanson: Rediscovering a lost Milwaukee

My journey into the past started with a decaying concrete foundation in the woods along the Milwaukee River. A few minutes on the Internet pulled up the answer – the foundation was that of the Gordon Park bathhouse, which opened in 1914. It had an eating room, more than 300 lockers, and could accommodate as many as 600 swimmers at a time. In the winter it served as a warming house for ice skaters. There is much more to the story. The first all-city swim meet was held here in 1921. More than 100 competitors took part, 59 in...

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Milwaukee Notebook: The 1845 Bridge War

In 1845, an argument over who should pay for civic improvements escalated to the point that a cannon was wheeled out to threaten the west side of town with artillery fire. The dispute ended in the wrecking of most of the bridges in town. They called it the Bridge War. The dispute is all the more remarkable for Milwaukee, standing at the confluence of three rivers, is a city of bridges. A 1935 article in the Milwaukee Journal noted, “Milwaukeeans cross their bridges when they come to them – and they come to them, on the average, more than...

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Milwaukee Notebook: An 1861 lynching in the Third Ward

On September 7, 1861, a mob overwhelmed police, broke into the Milwaukee city jail, and dragged an African-American prisoner from his cell. The prisoner, Marshal Clark, was beaten and then lynched – his body left hanging from a pile-driving machine on Buffalo Street just east of Water Street. Lynchings were common in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, especially in the South and especially targeting African-Americans. (The Tuskegee Institute counted 4,743 lynchings in the United States between 1882 and 1968, of which 3,446 of the victims were African-American.) Sixteen lynchings have taken place in Wisconsin. The first occurred in...

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Milwaukee Notebook: Streetcar builds on a sometimes strange history

The original Milwaukee streetcar system racked up a lot of stories in its 100 years of service to Milwaukee. This is one of the stranger ones. Milwaukee has many transit firsts. It was the first large city to merge independent trolley companies into a single transit system. It pioneered the use of weekly ride passes. Milwaukee also boasts possibly the first recorded case of “trolley rage.” In December 1946, Albert Greb, 43, a Milwaukee streetcar motorman, appeared in district court to answer charges of reckless driving and causing damage to property – namely, using a streetcar to demolish an...

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Milwaukee Notebook: A Factory Town for Marriages

In the 1890s, couples flocked to Milwaukee to take advantage of laws allowing immediate weddings, no license, no waiting period, and hardly any questions asked. As a Milwaukee Journal article of the time put it, the State of Wisconsin might as well be called the State of Matrimony. On any given day, the Goodrich Transportation Co. excursion steamer Christopher Columbus was sure to have a few eager couples boarding at Chicago for the trip to Milwaukee.When those couples sat down for a meal they would find advertisements on the ship′s menu from Milwaukee justices of the peace offering special...

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Milwaukee Notebook: Mae West’s Little Milwaukee Secret

Actress Mae West believed in leaving little to the imagination, but early in her career, something happened in Milwaukee she very much wanted to remain secret. Mae West, called the “epitome of playfully vulgar sex” by the New York Times became a household name and amassed a vast fortune by portraying confident and outrageously outspoken characters on stage and in films. But, early in her career, something happened she wanted to forever remain secret. In 1911, at the age of 17, she had gotten married in Milwaukee. As her fame grew, West maintained she had always been single, famously...

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