Historian John Gurda Explores Water’s Role in Building Milwaukee

Apr 22, 2015

A new documentary by historian John Gurda examines the region's history through our waterways.

Gurda first collaborated with Claudia Looze nine years ago on the landmark documentary, The Making of Milwaukee. On Tuesday, their new project, Milwaukee: A City Built On Water, premiered.

Gurda says the idea came out of a lecture he developed back in 2013. UW-Extension staffer, Gail Overholt, gave him some valuable advice: it would be nicer with pictures.

Gurda says Overholt went a step further and actually wrote a proposal to the DNR. The grant funded a series of eleven lectures, to which Gurda added images. A total of 1,000 people attended.

Gurda says the next obvious step was to create a documentary. "There are layers and layers and layers of sound effects, music, motion pictures, still photographer, so it's much more textured than my one-hour power point, one projector lecture."

The documentary traces the city's beginning. "Milwaukee is built on water as a port. That's why we're here; the best natural harbor on the lake," Gurda says. The film follows its rivers as they fueled leather making to beer brewing.

Gurda's favorite bit of history reflects the era when canoe clubs and swimming schools lined the Milwaukee River "....all the way from the North Avenue Dam to Capitol Drive, along with beer gardens, amusement parks." He says, "(This was) back in the day of one-day weekends, all our ancestors only had off Sunday; so it  was kind of an in town up north. You would have thousands of people along that river."

However, years of use and abuse of the city's waterways caught up with its rivers. "The Milwaukee River was in such bad shape that in the 1920s there was a serious proposal to it to deck it and make it into a grand boulevard, a box sewer is what it would have been," he says.

The Clean Water Act of 1972 began to turn the tide on pollution.

Gurda says the film's concludes with cautious optimism cautionary message - "the recovery is underway but the danger of relapse is ever present."