Monday, January 31, 2011

Today in History: The Milwaukee Bridge War

Despite studying history for some time now and then I occasionally come across a story that surprises me. For a couple years my family lived in the Milwaukee, WI area and I even had the pleasure of visiting the city. It was enjoyable to walk around, meet the people, and see the sights. It never crossed my mind that the founding of the city had such a unique story. 

In 1818, a man by the name of Solomon Juneau traveled down from Montreal, Canada. He helped found a town on the site of a trading post located on the east side of the Milwaukee River known affectionately as Juneau's Side and eventually Juneautown. Realizing the times were changing Juneau focused his efforts away from the fur trade, which dominated the area, and turned his attention toward real estate, building the settlement to a thriving town. Some years later a ruthless businessman named Byron Kilbourn, originally coming from Ohio, had worked as a government surveyor in Green Bay and personally staked out some land on the west side of the Milwaukee River. Like Juneau he saw the potential of the area as a possible port city for Lake Michigan which spills eventually into the Atlantic Ocean. The land Kilbourn staked out however was actually owned by the Potawatomi. After some secret dealings, Kilbourn snuck the land it into a federal survey and was able to take control of the area in 1835. Quickly the area grew like Juneautown and became known as Kilbourntown. 

Because of their close proximity and shared river both towns immediately developed a rivalry. Byron Kilbourn worked really hard at trying to isolate Juneautown so Kilbourntown would be the thriving metropolis. However in 1845 the Wisconsin legislature required the people of the area to build a draw bridge over the Milwaukee River because the original ferry system was not accomodating the growing population. Kilbourn and the people on the west side saw the bridge as a violation to their independence they had been trying to build for the last decade. Juneautown showed excitement for the bridge and the possibility of growth for their community as a result of it. Tensions between the two cities had been mounting over the last decade and the bridge construction brought all of it to a head. In May of 1845 Kilbourn made the decision to drop the west side of the bridge in the water. As a result, a mob of Juneautowners formed looking to fight for this bridge and stand up for their rights as a town. Violence was pushed off for a few weeks until Juneautown members destroyed two smaller bridges in an attempt to cut off the west side, Kilbourners. The goal was to give them a taste of their own medicine. Skirmishes broke out between the two sides with surprisingly no deaths. Eventually hostilities ended between the two sides and a call for corporation started. Even the founders realized that the only way their towns were going to survive is if they worked together. On January 31, 1846 the towns of Juneautown and Kilbourntown unified to create the City of Milwaukee. Solomon Juneau stepped in as the first mayor of the great city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. 

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