What's the Deal with South Milwaukee's Addresses and Street Names?

Apr 29, 2016

Steve Liszewski first noticed South Milwaukee's unique house numbering and street naming system when he was young and his parents taught him how to travel the county by bus.

He understood Greater Milwaukee’s address numbering system and became familiar with its street names – until he crossed the border into South Milwaukee. Then everything was different. So, he turned to WUWM and asked why.

Postcards commemorating South Milwaukee's centennial.
Credit Collection of H.F. Bergmann

Before we answer, let's explore what makes South Milwaukee's addresses different from most others in Milwaukee County.

Milwaukee's address system was a haphazard mess in the early 1900s because developers had randomly named streets. Postmasters were flustered. So in 1913, the city appointed a commission to design a scheme and, after years of bickering, it was finalized in 1926 and implemented over the ensuing five years.

Milwaukee's address plan set Canal Street as the dividing line between South and North streets, and the Milwaukee River downtown as the dividing line between East and West streets. Address numbers increase, in each direction, as you move away from those starting points.  

Nearly all county suburbs adopted that street numbering and naming system, but South Milwaukee had created its own and was pleased with it, so the community seemed to rebuff the suggestion that it become part of a metropolitan system.

South Milwaukee's address plan numbers its avenues starting at Lake Michigan and going west to today's farthest reach of 18th Avenue. The community has made its northernmost boundary College Avenue, which is 6200 blocks south in Milwaukee's plan, its 100 block with address numbers extending south from there until the 3800 block.

So, in essence, the broader Milwaukee system branches out from the city's center while South Milwaukee's starting points are Lake Michigan and College Avenue.  

Streets in and around South Milwaukee.
Credit Google Maps

A few examples of resulting discrepancies: 13th Avenue in South Milwaukee is couple miles east of 13th Street in neighboring Oak Creek, Pennsylvania Avenue in adjacent communities becomes Nicholson Avenue in South Milwaukee, and a business located at the same latitude in say Oak Creek and South Milwaukee would have address numbers differing by 6100.

Now, for more of the back story.

South Milwaukee curator Richard Thinnes learned if it ain't broke, don't fix it.
Credit Marge Pitrof

South Milwaukee Historical Society Museum curator Richard Thinnes explains that back in the 1800s, the community had a strong industrialist culture with its leaders believing it could become a powerful, competitive suburb to Milwaukee.

Waves of immigrants also flocked to South Milwaukee for its factory jobs and natural beauty. Many of those people had fled authoritarian regimes in other countries and did not want big government dictating policy.

Thinnes says it was that combination of independent spirit and manufacturing might led South Milwaukee to establish, early on, its own infrastructure including a water filtration system, sewer system and its own street and address scheme.

"South Milwaukee, they didn't really feel they were a continuation of the City of Milwaukee, so they tried to keep their own identity. And when this whole process started, they decided, no, they were not going to do it; they were going to keep their street numbering system and keep their street names," according to Milwaukee address history buff Carl Baehr. 

A Few Other Milwaukee Street Back Stories

WUWM has received quite a few questions about the origins of Milwaukee's street names.

We turned to history buff Carl Baehr to answer a few:

In Milwaukee, Center Street was actually named after a surveyor named Alexander Center, not the center of town.

North Avenue is located south of Center Street because when North was named in Milwaukee's early days, it had marked the north end of a subdivision.

A railroad official named Silver Spring Drive after a business on the road - Herman’s Silver Spring Mills. It had advertised itself as using the silver springs located in the vicinity which had also provided water for early settlers.

Good Hope Road was named after a community that called itself Good Hope, living in that area. Incidentally, Jefferson Davis – later President of the Confederacy - surveyed the road. He had been a federal surveyor at the time.

Carl Baehr knows a lot of street stories.
Credit Marge Pitrof

Baehr’s favorite street name in metro Milwaukee: Fairy Chasm Road. “Fairy Chasm Road is on the north end of the county, and it was named after a resort that was right there, at the lake. There was a ravine that went down to the lake, and the owner of the resort saw his daughters dancing around on the beach and swirling their arms and reminded him of fairies. So he named his ravine Fairy Chasm, and eventually that was the name given to the road that led to it."

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