Tom Tolan’s Riverwest History

In a 2005 article in The Riverwest Currents, Milwaukee Historian Tom Tolan talks about how the Milwaukee River helped to determine the character of the Riverwest neighborhood.  In the early 19th century, its deep valley and steep banks were popular with wealthy families who built their summer homes on its banks, along with operators of expensive, private parks and resorts.

In the 1830s, two dams were also built, one just below North Avenue and one where Capitol Drive is currently located.  The dams supplied power for flour mills, tanneries and other factories.  The area between the main road going north of the city and the river was largely settled by poor Polish immigrants and other working class people who worked at these factories.  A small industrial village named Humboldt sprang up around the Capitol Drive dam, connected to the village of Milwaukee by the rough and rutted Humboldt Plank Road. Recreational facilities began to spring up along the river for working class people as well, including a popular resort called Blatz Park (at about Concordia Street) where people could ice skate, swim and rent boats.

One of the most influential people in the area at the time was a wealthy landowner named Charles B. Whitnall.  Known for his visions of a green Milwaukee, Whitnall believed in the principles of a nationwide socialist reform movement that sought to promote healthier living conditions in cities by making parks accessible to everyone. As an active member of the city’s Park and Public Land Commissions for 40 years, he became the chief architect of a plan to preserve the river’s banks from Port Washington Road to North Avenue, along which he planted many trees and other plant life.  Whitnall’s old neighborhood north of Locust and East of Humboldt Blvd. is not exactly the lush and perfect green space that he envisioned, but it does retain a wild and rural atmosphere right in the heart of the city.  It’s still his vision in spirit and we should work to keep it wild.

A Little History: Native American Burial Grounds

There are three historic Native American burial mounds along the west side of the Milwaukee River. This is from info published in 1916, using maps from Increase Lapham, from 1849.

Here’s the map which shows the location of the Native American mounds and the map index.

Courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society

19a. North Avenue Mounds. On this map Dr. Lapham shows by means of several dots the location of several mounds which are reported to have formerly existed on and adjoining the land occupied by the C. M. & St. P. R. R. North Milwaukee roundhouse. They were situated south of North Avenue and about two blocks east of Kilbourn Park. One of these mounds was a panther effigy.

20. School Section Group (Plate 6). Lapham thus describes this mound group:

“Proceeding up the [Milwaukee] river, we find the next works on the” School Section between the plank road from Milwaukee to Humboldt and the river. (See Plate VII, No. 4). They consist of three lizard [panther] mounds, and four of the oblong form, occupying a high level plateau completely covered with the original forest trees*, (p. 17).”

This location was east of present Humboldt Avenue and south of Clarke Street. The track of the Milwaukee and La Grosse Railroad (now the C. M. & St. P. R. R.) passed between the mounds and the river bank, which at this place was fifty feet high.

Lapham’s survey of this group was made in November 1849. The three panther effigies were about 130, 130 and 135 feet in length respectively. The largest of the linear and oval mounds was about 60 feet in length. Lapham also shows one conical (burial) mound but does not mention it in his description. The river bank near the mounds was 50 feet high.

22. Humboldt Mounds. According to Lapham’s map these mounds, which were conical in form, were located on the west side of the Milwaukee river east of Humboldt Avenue and between what are now Auer and Keefe Avenues. Situated directly north of these mounds was the early Milwaukee river settlement known as Humboldt.



Great Blue Heron

The Great Blue Heron is found throughout most of North America, as far north as Alaska and the southern Canadian provinces. Birds east of the Rocky Mountains are migratory and winter in Central America or northern South America. The Great Blue Heron uses its long legs to wade through shallow water, spearing fish or frogs with its long sharp bill, especially at dawn and dusk. It breeds in colonies close to lakes or other wetlands called heronry, which average between 5 and several hundred nests per colony. Adult herons, due to their size, have few natural predators, but can be taken by Bald Eagles, Great Horned Owls and Red-Tailed Hawks. Its call is a harsh croak.

The Great Blue Heron is a “Species of Concern” and is fully protected by federal and state laws under the Migratory Bird Act. – Petra Press

Old Town of Humboldt

On the far northern end of Riverwest was a town named Humboldt, the namesake of the street. The town was built to equip a distillery, flour, and paper mills which used the river as its source of power by way of a dam. The dam, which was located just south of Capitol Drive was destroyed several times by high water in the 1850s and again in the 1860s, and was eventually abandoned.  The factories succumbed to the elements.  The distillery fell into the river in 1862 and the the paper and flour mill were destroyed by fire in 1866.  If you know where to look you can still see some evidence of their existence.  — Mark Towne

courtesy of

According to census information, in 1860, Humboldt was an unincorporated community home to workers (968 households!) in nearby flour and paper mills. Residents were primarily German immigrants.  Reflecting the demographics, which consisted primarily of German immigrants, street names included “Leibnitz,” “Schiller,” and “Goethe”.

To learn more about this bit of local history check out “Relics of Old Humboldt,” an article published in Evening Wisconsin in 1897, posted on