'Milwaukee: A City Built on Water' Looks at the Lakes & Rivers That Created the City

Jul 9, 2018

There has been a lot of effort in the last decade to denote Milwaukee as a so-called “world water hub.” To date, many companies that research water and water-related technology have chosen to locate in the region, but the importance of water to the area is hardly new. 

Historian John Gurda points out that water has played an instrumental role in Milwaukee since before the city was even called Milwaukee. His latest book, Milwaukee: A City Built on Waterexplores how water physically and figuratively created the area he calls home. 

While Gurda was very familiar with the impact of the city's many waterways on the founding of Milwaukee (having written extensively about the city's history), there were still some surprises when he set out to research this book. 

"One of the big, sort of, revelations was how different the Milwaukee River was above and below the North Avenue dam," says Gurda. "I describe it as sort of 'Jekyll and Hyde.' And I knew about the pollution below, I knew about the recreation above, but the extent of both was something that was a bit surprising." 

The Milwaukee River is now a mecca for kayakers and paddleboarders today. That’s a far cry from what the river was like at the turn of the last century. 

Gurda explains, "Back in those days, people didn’t know how to treat sewage - human and animal waste. So after they kind of put the current to sleep in the Milwaukee River by docking and dredging - on a hot day in the summer months, all that stuff would just sit there and cook, and so you had just an unbearable stench." 

Milwaukee: A City Built on Water is Gurda's 22nd book and is featured in this month's Milwaukee Magazine