Early in Milwaukee’s history, residents flocked to the Milwaukee River to recreate. They gathered at the beer gardens and swimming schools that lined the shores, north of downtown.
By the end of the 1900s however, development and runoff had polluted the river, and the community began abandoning it. It wasn’t until about 1970 that comprehensive efforts began to remediate the problems.
The river is far from its pristine state. Yet in today’s installment of our series Milwaukee River Revival, WUWM’s Ann-Elise Henzl views how the river has again become a draw for leisure-time activities.
Robert Carr has watched traffic grow on the Milwaukee River. He used to operate a daily coal run on a tugboat from the city’s port up the Menomonee River. Then, he piloted Edelweiss cruises for years, taking passengers out onto Lake Michigan. After the city constructed the Riverwalk and public docks 20 years ago, Carr noticed bars and restaurants migrating to the water’s edge. He was so confident in continued growth, that he bought the Edelweiss fleet.
“We have the two Edelweiss boats, the Lakeside Spirit, then we have a 45-foot pontoon boat, then we have pontoon rentals,” Carr says.
Carr’s sightseeing tours depart regularly from downtown, scoping out redevelopment in the Third Ward.
Tour narrator: “Many of the neighborhood’s old warehouses and factory buildings have been turned into lofts, condos, boutiques and restaurants.”
The captain says some people who have moved to the riverfront brought boats with them.
“They have the boats right in front of their condominiums, and they're out more often than they would be if they had to go down to a marina,” Carr says.
The new pleasure boat traffic has spurred entrepreneurs to develop places for people to dock and store their boats. For example, the family-owned Hansen Storage company now uses some of its riverfront property for a 35-slip marina. President Peter Hansen says for much of the company’s 100-year history, industry used the dock.
“We used to offload ships and things like that on our dock, and obviously we’re not doing that anymore,” Hansen says.
While at the marina, renters have access to grills, an ice machine and showers.
“We have renters who are from Madison and they come every weekend. Some people that are now storing their boat here on the water, they used to be up in Green Bay and they just love it down here, and it’s almost like a party scene it’s a fun atmosphere to be a part of,” Hansen says.
Power boats aren’t the only ones using the Milwaukee River more these days. So are crew teams. Joe Cincotta is president of the Milwaukee Rowing Club. He drives a small motorboat, following eight high school rowers on their early morning lesson through downtown.
“This is like a novice crew, some of them may have started a month ago, or less,” Cincotta says.
Cincotta says the rowing club has been around for a century, but has really taken off in the last couple decades. The group launched a high school program. Marquette University and MSOE established crew teams, and now use the rowing club as their home base. The city built the boathouse and a public floating dock in the Beerline neighborhood in 2003. Following her workout, 17-year-old Anna Leach says she loves the hustle and bustle of the rowing route.
“Sometimes it’s a little hectic with all the actual boat traffic coming in from the lake, but it’s just a great place to row,” Leach says.
The rowers practice early and late, on weekdays, to avoid the river’s busiest times. It can get crowded – and potentially dangerous, if boaters are careless or inexperienced. The Coast Guard and police patrol the waterway. They cite boaters for violations, such as drunken driving or failing to have enough life jackets. The Urban Ecology Center at Riverside Park offers its own safety class.
“I’m going to be leading this water safety course today. If you hear me emphasize something as important for safety, there’s a good chance that you’ll see that on the multiple choice test,” says instructor Walter Sams. He says the center’s nine-boat fleet is in use all weekend, every weekend.
Canoes and kayaks are the only boats small enough to traverse the river in the city limits, upstream from the old North Avenue dam. Here, the waterway becomes more narrow and shallow. The River Revitalization Foundation has been raising money to improve public access to the riverbanks, by foot and bike.
“We are in Caesar’s Park and at the trailhead of the East Bank Trail, which is a national recreation trail,” says foundation Executive Director Kimberly Gleffe. Her group also works to restore habitat and block development.
“Without a protected corridor and access points, it would be really difficult for people to get down here and enjoy it,” Gleffe says.
Gleffe says negative attitudes about the Milwaukee River have been falling away. The first beer garden in decades has even appeared. Crowds have flocked to Estabrook Park this summer, to listen to polka music and admire the view. Yet Gleffe says the river still has a long way to go before people can safely swim in it or eat its fish.