How Bradford Beach Came to Be

If it weren’t for uncounted tons of landfill and a government breakwater, the waves could still be lapping against the bluffs.

The weather must have been scorching when this photograph of Bradford Beach was taken on a summer day in the late 1930s. Not only was every parking space on Lincoln Memorial Drive occupied, but a few dozen people were actually out in the chilly waters of Lake Michigan. 

The beach and the drive were barely a decade old at the time, and both marked the culmination of decades of effort and uncounted tons of landfill. In the city’s infancy, lake waves had lapped directly against the bluffs. Milwaukee built a water pumping station at the foot of North Avenue in 1873 and 15 years later added a second station at the foot of Lafayette Place that pumped lake water under the East Side to flush the filthy Milwaukee River. Both rested on pads of landfill that constituted the lakeshore’s first public green space. 




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City officials began to envision “a great park” along the lakefront, and the first section of government breakwater, completed in 1892, accelerated its development. Extending from the foot of Lafayette, the seawall interrupted the south-flowing currents of the lake, depositing tons of sand that became McKinley Beach. 

Another popular beach was created at the foot of Bradford Avenue, but it was completely undeveloped. Sun-seekers had to walk down the stairs from the top of the bluff, and motorists risked getting stuck in the sand if they drove down the pumping station’s service road. 

Since 1913, Lincoln Memorial Drive had been inching northward from Downtown, taking shape on landfill composed largely of cinders and rubbish. In 1929, the “ornamental roadway” was completed past Bradford Beach to the top of the bluff in Lake Park, giving the city what a local reporter called “one of the most beautiful shore drives in the country.” Milwaukeeans have been enjoying it ever since.  


  • The twin spires of St. Stanislaus Catholic Church stand out on the South Side’s smokestack-studded skyline.
  • The government breakwater was built to protect central Milwaukee from northeast storms. McKinley Beach was a serendipitous byproduct.
  • Built in 1889, the Chicago & North Western Railroad depot anchored the east end of Downtown.
  • This point, created to trap the sand that became Bradford Beach, has since been expanded to include a parking lot and a popular custard stand.