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Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2009

Life on the Lakeshore Milwaukee’s bond with Lake Michigan

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As Wisconsinites, we’re members of an exclusive alliance of states fortunate to touch the waters of the Great Lakes. Lake Michigan is Milwaukee’s most valuable natural resource: It’s our source of drinking water; it fights our fires; and we love to play in, on and around it.

Evidence that American Indians lived near the lakeshore can be found in Lake Park, where an earthen mound constructed by Milwaukee natives between 900 and 1,600 years ago was discovered. Natives lived by the water’s edge until new settlers surveyed the tribal lands and seized them. When Solomon Juneau, Byron Kilbourn and George Walker were divvying it up, the early plats included provisions for “public squares” in all three communities that formed the early city. One of these city parks, Juneau Park, overlooked the lakefront from its perch on the bluff above.

From the time the Milwaukee Board of Park Commissioners first assembled in June 1889, they understood the importance of preserving the lakefront for public use. One of their first buys was 123.6 acres located along the Lake Michigan shoreline, extending from the Water Works Park at Terrace Avenue north to Burleigh Street. They saw their land purchase as the last chance for Milwaukeeans to reach the lake without having to cross multiple railroad tracks. On their search, the park commissioners found that private landholders and corporations had ownership of most of the lakeshore and that it couldn’t be secured except at a prohibitive cost. So they decided to “reclaim” a strip of submerged earth along the shoreline.

Under the guidance of Frederick Law Olmsted, Lake Park was sculpted and adorned with elegant bridges, a carriage drive, a small railcar station, a bandstand and a pavilion with a grand staircase down to the lakefront. In 1906 a drive was built from the top of the north ravine in Lake Park and ran 1,000 feet along the lakeshore. Lincoln Memorial Drive was officially opened for its entire length from downtown Milwaukee to the north end of Lake Park in September 1929.

The initial development of McKinley Marina began in 1959 and included more than 1,200 feet of sheet pile for the bulkhead and thousands of yards of fill. Four years later work began on the construction of a 4,200-linear-feet-long steel bulkhead that extended from the shoreline to a point 500 feet from the federal government breakwater in Lake Michigan. The bulkhead contained a 70-acre landfill that created a protected harbor for the marina’s 650 anchoring slips. That landfill is today’s Veterans Park.

Lake Michigan’s very existence formed the foundations of our city. We use its water and host festivals, visit museums, sit at cafes, exercise, socialize and meditate on its shoreline. Yet for all it gives us, we still use it to catch Milwaukee’s overflowing sewage and factory runoff, like ammonia and sludge from the BP oil refinery in Whiting, Ind. If we want Lake Michigan to continue to be the lifeblood of Milwaukee, we must bring its water back to life.

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