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Thursday, July 12, 2012

A War Over Bridges: From Three Towns to One Milwaukee

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While traveling through Milwaukee's Downtown, you may see street signs for Kilbourn Avenue, Juneau Avenue or Walker Street. These city streets are named after some of Milwaukee's early entrepreneurs. However, before Milwaukee was founded, it was struck with years of tension that escalated into violence. The result of this tension was the Milwaukee Bridge War of 1845. The area we now know as Milwaukee was made up of three different “towns” that were later unified.

East of the Milwaukee River existed Juneautown, named after land owner and entrepreneur Solomon Juneau. Shortly after, Byron Kilbourn purchased large tracks of land west of the river. 
Kilbourn developed his land separate from the east, named Kilbourntown, which created fierce competition between the two areas—so much so that the roads were often constructed intentionally not to match the roads built on the east side, to discourage the building of bridges. The third town, much less developed, was founded by George Walker. This area, Walker's Point, struggled to compete with the other two cities due to Walker's personal financial troubles.

The three cities existed separately, but over the years the competition and rivalry intensified. Eventually, the Wisconsin Legislature required a drawbridge to be constructed between the eastern and western town. This was upsetting to both towns, as each one wanted to remain independent. 
Finally, tensions mounted to the point of violence in 1845, when the west end of the drawbridge was dropped into the river to deny access from those on the east. In retaliation, the east side destroyed two smaller bridges to deny access to those on the west side. After two weeks, the pressure exploded into violence between members of the east and the west. The Bridge War ended quickly, with minor injuries and no fatalities. After the dust settled, residents of both towns realized that a united town was the only resolution.

A year later, a committee was formed to join the three cities together. In January of 1846, a charter was approved and the city of Milwaukee was founded. The three cities of Kilbourntown, Juneautown and Walker's Point were combined; Solomon Juneau served as the first mayor. 
Kilbourn and Walker would also serve terms as mayors of Milwaukee, providing all three a chance to lead the unified city. As you stroll the streets of Milwaukee today, notice the signs and markers signifying this early formation of our city—and remember how the three towns became one Milwaukee.

Photo: Solomon Juneau statue in Milwaukee's Juneau Park, circa 1890. The statue is still there today.
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