January 31 – Anniversary of the Founding of Milwaukee

Posted on January 31, 2017

I read that Milwaukee formed, on this date in 1846, after the Milwaukee Bridge War.

I wondered, “Wait? The Milwaukee Bridge War? It wasn't about bridges, right? It was...a battle on a bridge? Maybe?”

Well, to some extent, it was about a bridge (or two or five!).

You see, back in the early 1800s, there was no city of Milwaukee (Wisconsin). Instead, there were three settlements on the Milwaukee River. Solomon Juneau started Juneautown on the east side of the river way back in 1818. Some sixteen years later, Byron Kilbourn started Kilbourntown on the west side of the river, and George W. Walker started Walker's Point to the south of the other two settlements.

Even though Juneautown had been in existence for more than a decade when Kilbourn founded his settlement, he didn't pay any attention to the street layout of Juneautown when laying out his own town. He even tried to make sure that his newer town was THE town – the one people knew about and used and shipped through and so forth. So, when he drew up maps, he showed the east side of the river being just an unnamed blank space, as if it were just wilderness. And he even lied to people traveling by steamer, telling them that Juneautown was just an Indian trading post.

People traveling across the river from Juneautown to Kilbourntown used ferry boats, but in 1840 the Wisconsin Territory's legislature ordered the construction of one or more bridge. Solomon Juneau helped build a bridge over Chestnut Street, and by 1842 four more bridges were build: one at Spring Street, one at Oneida, one connecting Juneautown to Walker Point, and one Kibourn built across another river.

Kilbourn was opposed to three out of the four bridges, finding only Spring Street bridge to be acceptable to his shipping business.

Several years went by. East-siders were getting upset that west-siders wouldn't help pay for bridge maintenance. Then, in 1845, Kilbourn's favorite bridge was rammed by a ship, and rumors started circulating among west-siders that it had been done on purpose by a ship's captain who had been paid off by the east-siders.

West-siders decided to have their revenge (even though the accident was probably just an accident) – and they grabbed some tools and took down their side of the Chestnut Street bridge.

You know what happens when one half of the bridge is taken down, don't you?

East-siders were mad and gathered up all the weapons they could find – including an old cannon – and prepared for war!

The cannon was aimed right for Byron Kilbourn's house. However, they held their fire when they heard that Kilbourn's daughter had just died.

West-siders decided to remove the Oneida bridge and use the pieces to repair the Spring Street bridge. Of course, that made the east-siders really mad – because now BOTH of their favored bridges were destroyed. Time to really take their revenge – the east-siders destroyed the Spring Street bridge and Kilbourn's bridge that crossed another river.


The next few weeks were tense, but tempers slowly cooled. Eventually, at the end of that year, three new bridges were planned, and a month later the three settlements merged into one new entity called Milwaukee.

Also on this date:

Street Children's Day

Chess composer Sam Lloyd's birthday

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