by Tom Tolan

(Editor’s nore: This was first published in the January 2003 edition of the Riverwest Currents)

You could argue that it was the Milwaukee River, threading its way between glacial ridges, that determined the future character of the Riverwest neighborhood. By digging a deep valley, it created steep banks that would be attractive to the wealthy families who built summer homes here in the 1880s, to the operators of private parks and resorts, and to the middle class families who settled in the area permanently. By carving a wide crescent as the neighborhood’s eastern border, the river ensured that the Green Bay trail — today’s King Drive and Green Bay Avenue — would be the main route north from the early village of Milwaukee, cutting straight across the crescent. You could argue that land values dropped sharply between the road and the river, putting the eastern fringe within the financial reach of the poor Polish immigrants who settled here in the 1880s and 1890s. Finally, by falling 18 feet just below North Avenue, the river provided the perfect setting for a dam, which supplied power for the mills, factories and tanneries that provided work for the Poles and for other working-class people who followed.

The first development in the neighborhood was in the 1830s, when two dams were built on the river, one just below where North Avenue is now, and one at the present site of Capitol Drive. Flour and other mills drew power from the dams. An industrial district grew up downstream from the North Ave. dam, along a canal on what is now Commerce St., and a small industrial village named Humboldt, named after the German explorer Alexander von Humboldt, was built around the Capitol Drive dam. The first road through the neighborhood was the Humboldt Plank Road, a rough and rutted path that brought paper and other goods south to the little village of Milwaukee, whose northern boundary in those days was North Ave.

The La Crosse and Milwaukee Railroad — later the Milwaukee and St. Paul, and still later the Milwaukee Road — swept through the area, and its car shops and a roundhouse were built where the Jewel-Osco store now stands on Humboldt and North. In the late 1800s, after the Capitol Drive dam was destroyed by floods, the village of Humboldt died out, but on the banks downstream from it, a mostly summer colony of wealthy German-American families developed — Milwaukee manufacturers and business leaders, mostly, with names such as the Uihleins of Schlitz and the Puelichers of the Marine Bank. The Uihleins had a horse farm on the west side of Humboldt, north of Keefe, and there are stories of family members racing their horses up and down that road.

There was also recreation on the river for those less wealthy, with a busy resort called Blatz Park at about Concordia and the river, boat rental businesses and at least three swimming schools in the deep water near the North Ave. dam. In the winter there was ice-skating, and an annual harvest of ice to be stored in huge icehouses on the riverbank and then sold in the warmer months to keep iceboxes cold all over the city. Perhaps the one man in the neighborhood’s history who best embodies its relationship to the river, however, was Charles B. Whitnall. And if neighborhoods can be said to belong to people who no longer live in them, the area of Riverwest closest to the river — that part east of Humboldt — is Mr. Whitnall’s neighborhood. Whitnall was born in 1859 in a small, Cream City brick house still standing today at 1208 E. Locust St. The house then was just off the old Humboldt Plank Road, down which wagons carrying goods from the Humboldt mills still jounced. When he died, almost 90 years later, in a larger house just 50 yards from his birthplace, Whitnall resided in a city neighborhood that looked much as it does today. As a dominant force on the county’s Park Commission for 40 years and the city’s Public Land Commission for 36, Whitnall was the chief architect of the county’s park system and the city’s most vigorous advocate of intelligent land-use planning. Because of these activities, much of what you see in Milwaukee today — the miles of county parkways, the lakefront beaches, the neighborhoods of homes separated from factory districts — is a result of how Whitnall and his associates thought things should look. His influence on his own neighborhood was as pronounced as his influence on the city.

Charles Whitnall’s name is on the first plan, published in 1909, to preserve the riverbanks from Port Washington Road to the North Avenue Bridge as public green space. Gordon Park, just south of his home on Locust, included land that once had belonged to the family of his first wife. In the 1930s, Whitnall organized a cooperative land-development company — as a Socialist, he didn’t believe in selling land for profit — and laid out a small subdivision on the east end of Burleigh Street. Though the cooperative did not survive the Depression, the land was later developed by Frank Kirkpatrick, a Whitnall associate, and became Gordon Circle. Whitnall also sold a piece of his own property to Kirkpatrick, who developed a small residential cluster on Roadsmeet Street, just east of the Whitnall house. The late builder recalled that Whitnall, who was in his 80s at the time, told him, “I want to see some houses here, with some young people and some babies.”

Whitnall was a great planter of trees, and he is believed to be responsible for at least some in the small grove in the middle of Gordon Circle. Kirkpatrick told me in 1979 that a rambling rose, a horse chestnut, and several sumacs on his riverbank property just south of Capitol Drive also were from the old park planner. The late Florence Engelhorn, who lived on Gordon Circle, remembered Whitnall coming over often when she first moved in, bearing plants from his own garden to replant on the Engelhorns’ property. When she protested that he was being too generous, he replied, “Oh well, when you get going you’ll have stuff to give away, too.” She did, and the descendants of Whitnall’s plants have now spread throughout the neighborhood. 

Whitnall’s interest in parks and plants stemmed from his early career in the flower, seed and fertilizer business — a business he inherited from his father. “Charlie” Whitnall was also interested in finance, serving as city treasurer when the Socialist Party carried the 1910 elections, and after leaving office in 1912 organizing the Commonwealth Mutual Savings Bank, a cooperatively owned bank “designated to benefit the wage earner,” according to a 1922 profile of him by Milwaukee historian William George Bruce. Whitnall, wrote Bruce, “has ever been keenly interested in activities and projects which have had for their purpose the welfare and upbuilding of the community and the protection of the interests of those who have a difficult struggle in meeting the demands of life.”

But Whitnall is best known for his visions of a green Milwaukee. His ideas blended the Socialists’ working class orientation with the principles of a nationwide reform movement that sought to end unhealthy living conditions, as well as political corruption, in the nation’s teeming cities. The local Socialist platform was eminently practical, calling for adequate sewage treatment, an improved health department, and an expanded park system. Good parks, Whitnall believed, were essential to good health, a point clearly made in a 1909 plan prepared by his Metropolitan Park Commission: “An ordinary park … is for atmospheric effect, which is of the utmost importance. Our breathing, our assimilation and excretion through the pores of the skin, the use of the eyes and ears, are stimulated to normal activity, not so much by reasoning or willing, as by natural or instinctive response to those influences which we learn to call beautiful because they are good to us.”

Later in his life, Whitnall’s park ideas evolved into a vision of Milwaukee as a metropolis sprawling throughout Milwaukee County, with much of its population living in park-like “Garden Cities” along the area’s waterways and commuting to work on new highways. “Milwaukee’s principal asset,” he told a reporter in 1940, “is its mechanical manpower… We must conserve that manpower and give its children proper environment to continue that tradition. Otherwise their talent will deteriorate, and with it Milwaukee. Such trained skills cannot be preserved in an apartment house or a heavily congested section of the city. To preserve it and develop it further, these craftsmen must move out where their children can be close to mother earth and in touch with natural environment.”

Whitnall’s old neighborhood — north of Locust and east of Humboldt Blvd. — is hardly the perfect expression of his planning ideas, but it retains an unusually rural atmosphere for an area so close to the heart of the city. There is a sense that natural rhythms still prevail, especially in the bands of green space reaching inland from the river. In that sense, the area retains the spirit of Whitnall; in that sense more than any other, it is still his neighborhood. It might be said that the entire Milwaukee area is still Whitnall’s. His 1940 vision of the metropolitan area is not far at all from what it looks like today, though of course many of the suburban areas have not been laid out with the care with which Whitnall would have done the job.

It is only since Whitnall’s death in 1949 that some people have questioned the principles of the “Garden City” movement on which he based many of his ideas. Arguing for a “New Urbanism,” the critics declare that Whitnall’s principles helped create suburban neighborhoods that became cultural deserts. They advocate development that encourages a mixture of land uses, busy sidewalks, and plenty of diversity, both visual and cultural. What the critics are saying, in effect, is that our early planners were concerned more with creating communities that were closer to nature than with understanding the nature of the successful communities in which citizens already lived. Which is only to say that rivers may provide the frame, but it is people who make a neighborhood.

Former Riverwest resident Tom Tolan is an editor with the Milwaukee Journal SentinelPhoto credits: Milwaukee County Historical Society; Pieter Godfrey post card collection. Riverwest Currents – Volume 2 – Issue 1 – January 2003