You only have to cruise through the packed corridor of cars on Commerce Street on a Friday night to recognize the vitality of the chic Beerline neighborhood. The site along the west bank of the Milwaukee River between Pleasant Street and Humboldt Avenue is host to Bikram yogis and yoginis, members of the Milwaukee Rowing Club, condo-dwellers, dog walkers and those looking for a cold beer and a family-style fish fry. The Beerline wasn’t always conducive to residential living, however; in fact, far from it.
Of Milwaukee’s three founders—Solomon Juneau, Byron Kilbourn and George Walker—surveyor and financier Byron Kilbourn was the most aggressive (and cantankerous) land developer. Eager to develop Milwaukee as a major port, Kilbourn obtained a land grant and charter in 1836 to build the Rock River Canal. The objective: to create a 50-mile canal that ran parallel to the Milwaukee and Menomonee rivers and would connect with the Rock River in Jefferson County and thereby with the Mississippi River and ultimately the port of New Orleans. Construction of the canal began in 1839, along with the Kilbourn Dam just south of North Avenue. Lack of capital forced Kilbourn to abandon the project in 1842, leaving him with only one mile of the canal constructed.
Kilbourn worked with what he had by opening the mouth of the canal and fitting it with locks to allow large vessels upstream. He promoted the banks of the canal as the perfect spot for breweries, flour-mills, sawmills, tanneries, foundries and factories because of the ample water-power. According to Riverwest: A Community Historyby Tom Tolan, more than two dozen mills and factories lined the canal by the time Wisconsin became a state in 1848. The necessity of the canal as the primary mode of transportation for the site was seriously diminished with the arrival of the railroad. In the early 1850s the Milwaukee and Mississippi Railroad ran along the west bank of the canal and terminated in a brewery warehouse at Highland Avenue, giving the line the nickname the “Beerline.” In 1884, the obsolete canal was filled in and paved over to become Commerce Street. The railroad, like the canal, was replaced with a newer form of transportation, the highway, and the tracks were removed. No longer tied to the river for its source of power and transportation, industry moved where land was plentiful and access more convenient.
Habitation on Commerce Street wasn’t realistic until something was done about the toxic Milwaukee River, which was all but destroyed by decades of environmentally unchecked industrialization. The river found new life in the 1990s when citizens rallied to restore it and removed the central section of the dam to allow water to flow faster. The Beerline neighborhood was born in the late- 1990s when city planners, real estate developers and private investors set their sights on it as a strategic location in the middle of vibrant urban neighborhoods.
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Beerline neighborhood Photo by Miranda Chaput