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.