Frozen in Place by the Blizzard of 1947

There’s a lot to see in this snapshot of a snowbound Wisconsin Avenue during the epic Blizzard of 1947.

When Milwaukee’s old-timers brag about the epic snows of their youth, they’re likely to start with the Blizzard of 1947. Over the course of three days in late January, a storm dumped over 18 inches of snow on the city, and 60 mph winds whipped it into drifts up to two stories high. Newspapers, when they could print again, were filled with stories about people spending the night in streetcars, abandoning automobiles by the hundreds and skiing out of second-floor windows.

Although more snow has fallen in other storms, the Blizzard of 1947 remains the most disabling weather event in Milwaukee’s history, a crisis aggravated by primitive forecasting tools, antiquated removal equipment and bad timing; the worst of the snow fell during rush hour. Cleanup work continued for weeks, and the total cost, counting lost wages and economic activity, was estimated at a staggering $75 million in 1947 dollars.

The city was literally frozen in place when the snow ended. One hardy soul who braved the drifts was Lyle Oberwise, a skilled amateur photographer whose passion was capturing Milwaukee on Kodachrome film. Oberwise chose the intersection of 10th Street and Wisconsin Avenue for this image, squarely between Downtown Milwaukee and the Marquette University campus.

Several of the landmarks pictured here are familiar, but the church on the left – First Methodist – is gone, replaced by nothing but air. It was torn down for the construction of the Marquette Interchange in 1968. The foreground of this snowbound scene from 1947 is now completely occupied by the Wisconsin Avenue bridge over Interstate 43.

TAKE A CLOSER LOOK:

  • First Methodist Church was founded in 1836 and moved to this site in 1906. The congregation merged into Central Methodist shortly before losing its building to I-43, and the combined community erected a striking church in the Brutalist style on 25th and Wisconsin in 1982.
  • This ornate belvedere (an enclosed gazebo) seen just left of the streetcar still stands on the front lawn of the former Alexander Mitchell mansion, which is now the Wisconsin Club.
  • Built in 1898 as a combination library and museum the Milwaukee Central Library – with its large circular structure at the center of the picture – drew its inspiration from the Classical Revival buildings of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.
  • With its sleek Art Deco styling, the Mariner Tower in the background at right was an instant landmark when it opened in 1930. Originally an office building, the tower was converted to condominiums in 2005 and is now known as the Wisconsin Tower.

IN COLLABORATION WITH MILWAUKEE COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY


 

This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s December issue.

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